We roll into Top Notch’s neighborhood in the early afternoon to film our first interview for our documentary about his community and his work. It’s the day after the Fourth of July and a trio of boys around the age of 11 are shooting off bottle rockets while walking down the street. They watch as we pull into Top Notch’s driveway in the all-black neighborhood. Older neighbors watch from their porches as well, curious. I’ve noticed during my two years of ethnography in the tight-knit neighborhoods of the Delta that watchful eyes abound, and that community members often know about my project before I arrive on site. I enjoy inviting curious onlookers to watch us work and often show them the equipment we are using. I am often rewarded when community members agree to be interviewed on camera.
We decide to shoot outside today—it’s a sunny and rather quiet afternoon, and little traffic noise filters through the thick Delta air. Top Notch does not have air conditioning or furniture—he’s just moved into this rented house—so we set up a coffee table for seating in the shady backyard. The three boys with fireworks peek over the fence next door as we set up our lights and microphones, so we invite them to come take a look at what we’re doing. They know that Top Notch is a rapper, but have never heard him rap. I ask them if they’d like to stay in the backyard while we film our interview and they reply that they would. We set up a fill light and lavalier mics for the interview.
Top Notch’s cousin, Taurus Metcalf, visits from next door, and we ask him if he’d like to speak to us about his cousin’s work. He agrees and we film him Top Notch and Taurus conversing about how they lived together as teenagers in a small two-bedroom apartment filled with 18 people. The entire extended family was supported by the disability checks of Top Notch’s uncle (and Taurus’ father). The kids were only able to eat one meal a day and remember going to bed hungry, their heads aching. They also recall chopping cotton on a Coahoma County plantation, where they became sick with exhaustion and thirst.
The three boys, who were standing behind Taurus and Top Notch during their interview, were excited when we asked if they’d like to speak on camera. They introduced themselves as Derrick Jurden, age 12; Mario Hagen, age 11; and Kevon Jurden, age 11. The depth of their insight into the alarming socioeconomic situation in the Delta was well beyond their years, as was their ability to rap about their experiences.