“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote. “Who controls the present controls the past.”
According to John Milton, “We know no time when we were not as now."
And a great rapper-philosopher once said, “Shizzle ma nizzle.”
What does all that have to do with a new CBC series called Utopia Falls? Everything. The young-adult sci-fi show is set in a seemingly idyllic near-future where history books are a thing of the past and Snoop Dogg is the lone librarian. Carried on CBC’s free streaming platform Gem, beginning Feb. 14, Utopia Falls quotes Paradise Lost, imagines a Flashdance of the future and celebrates the rebellious nature of hip-hop.
In the colony of New Babyl, a benevolent, egalitarian brand of authoritarianism rules. The story revolves around a performing-arts competition for students. The popular music that came before has been buried for the common good – kind of like Dixieland jazz has been today. The twist comes early in the 10-episode series when two characters discover a hidden trove of old technology and verboten music. In the secret archives, the voice of American rapper Snoop Dogg is the pseudo-Siri who mentions an unknown form of beat-based rhyme.
“The rediscovery of hip-hop is the rediscovery of the past and of self-expression,” explains series creator and director Randall Thorne. “It makes the students look at their world in a different way and makes them challenge it.”
Known professionally as R.T., Thorne is a former MuchMusic intern who grew into a music video-making star, with clients including Drake, Snoop Dogg, Sean Paul, Marianas Trench, Shawn Desman and others. In 2018, he was the recipient of Telefilm’s Talent to Watch fund and was accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival Talent Lab. He’s scripting his first feature film, the dystopian drama 40 Acres.
Asked about the influences that led to Utopia Falls, Thorne says that as a school kid he was a reader of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a comic-book enthusiast, a follower of power-fighting 80s hip-hop and a fan of Ray Bradbury’s style of sci-fi idealism. It all comes together in a future colony where “all are equal” and where rap unsettles authorities.
“If hip-hop were outlawed, that hole in the culture would allow people to control other people," says Thorne. “Now imagine what would happen if you discovered it again, and you were introduced to this idea of speaking out against things you didn’t agree with.”
The vision of Utopia Falls is not dystopian. The politics are decidedly socialist, smiles are all-round and there are no racial or gender issues. “We wanted to create a society that seems to work for everybody,” says Thorne.
But if the show’s title doesn’t rhyme with Paradise Lost, it does seem to suggest a dream turned bad, or at least unrealized. Is the utopia viable? “Well, watch all the way to episode 10," says Thorne. “You’ll see.”
We really don’t need to look into the future to imagine the world envisaged in Utopia Falls, in which societal conventions of a walled city are based on “founders’ laws.” The recent presidential impeachment trial in the United States revealed how malleable the interpretations of founders’ laws can be. So, meet the New Babyl, same as the Old Babyl.
“The series is very much of today,” says Thorne. “Today we exist in a culture that isn’t Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we’re dealing with some of the same ideas.”
In an early episode of Utopia Falls, the character played by Akiel Julien enjoys a drop-the-mic moment when he shows off impromptu verses to a crowd that has never been exposed to rap music: “Frighten, you bitin', truth hits you like lightnin.'"
The scene shows how simple and potent the music is at its core. “Anyone can rhyme to a beat,” says Thorne. “It’s not expensive.”
We’ve been told for years that all that is needed are “three chords and the truth.” If rap proves anything, we don’t even need the G, C and D.
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