VH1 recently aired Bling’d: Blood, Diamonds, and Hip Hop, a searing 90-minute documentary that took several rappers to Sierra Leone to show them the impact of its diamond-fueled civil war and the conditions in its present-day diamond trade.
The show began by explaining the lure of diamonds for the hip-hop community, arguing it evolved from “pimp” style and turned into a form of status. “We had for so many years chains around our neck, but this time they had diamonds in them,” says rapper Kanye West.
West, whose “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” single helped awaken hip-hop interest in the conflict issue, says it made him look at things differently. “It’s just ironic that what made black people so empowered was destroying other black people,” he says. “Once you hear about [blood diamonds], every time you look at a diamond you think about it.”
The rappers on the trip seemed shocked by the considerable poverty in Sierra Leone, one of the least-developed nations in the world. “It’s like I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth compared to this,” says Paul Wall, whose song “Grillz” helped popularize the diamonds-on-teeth trend.
In the most emotionally wrenching section—for both viewers and trip participants—the group visits a camp for amputee victims of the Sierra Leone war. The show ventures into reality show territory when Raekwon of Wu Tang Clan has to be talked into getting off the bus.
In another segment, the group shows polished stones to diggers in Sierra Leone’s diamond fields—the first they’ve ever seen. The group later calls for more industry profits to be channeled to the local population.
Alex Yearsley, of nongovernmental organization Global Witness, is featured prominently in the documentary. At one point he notes, “You have probably close to 2 million people mining diamonds in atrocious conditions who have seen virtually no benefit from the diamonds they have mined out of the ground.”
He adds, “People should not boycott diamonds from Africa. When you are going to buy that diamond ring, that gift of love, you can ask some searching questions and really put pressure on the industry and say, ‘Where is the money going? Is it benefiting a big foreign multinational or is it going to the people on the ground?’”
In the rough-copy version of the show screened by JCK, the only industry spokesperson was African-born jeweler Chris Aire. In one scene, the travelers accuse an executive from Sierra Leone mining company Koidu Holdings of not doing enough for the surrounding community. There’s also a brief scene of a 2002 meeting of the Kimberley Process, with an explanation by Yearsley.