For rapper and entrepreneur Emmanuel Kulu, social consciousness came at a high price.
Kulu's nephew, Dennel Baker, was murdered on Buffalo's East Side in 2014. His close friend and fellow artist Kenzel Fleming was killed four years earlier, in the same neighborhood. The deaths devastated Kulu, but eventually hardened his resolve to shine a light on life in the streets of Buffalo's East Side, and simultaneously build a future for himself above and beyond the often grim reality of those streets.
Kulu launched his all-Buffalo hip-hop label Tephlon Ent. in 2005, and spent the next six years struggling to maintain a vibrant roster of artists while facing the harsh economic realities of the music business. When Tephlon ran out of money in 2011, Kulu, according to the bio on his web site, faced a crisis of consciousness that found him depressed and considering giving up on his dreams. Ultimately, that crisis yielded to the creation of Black Art Visions, a new label and company, whose first project was the documentary film "The Rize & Fall of Tephlon Ent.," which debuts Nov. 26 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe.
The film offers an insider's view of Buffalo's East Side, concentrating on Kulu's neighborhood, and the rich, vibrant and often visceral hip-hop that rose from its streets, an artistic panacea in an often harsh environment where gang rivalries simmered and sometimes boiled over into violence. Kulu's goal, as represented in the film, was to reach across battle lines and unify the hip-hop community for the greater good of all involved.
Kulu's blend of conscious commentary, philanthropy and activism is in good company these days, with leading hip-hop lights like Chance the Rapper, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar doing their part to stem the tide of negativity and violence in various rap sub-genres by focusing on positivity, meaningful change, community involvement and generosity of spirit. “Hip-hop seems to be one of the only things that Blacks in America can take full credit for," Kulu told Buffalo's the Challenger recently. "It belongs to us.” In Kulu's hands, that music has become an agent of transformation and transcendence.
"The Rise and Fall of Tephlon Ent."
4 and 7 p.m. Nov. 26 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe at the Boulevard Mall. Tickets are $10. Visit screeningroom.net