TORONTO -- “The American culture is so caught up with what we want -- the fancy cars and the shiny jewelry -- as opposed to what we have,” the man was holding forth. “And the guns, there are too many guns, and too much violence, and that’s why we have shootings in movie theaters and high schools.”
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon on the roof deck of a Toronto arts center, and these words aren’t coming from a Buddhist monk or Mormon minister. Quite the opposite — they’re coming from Snoop Dogg, the man who has served as one of the high priests of that culture of materialism and gun-toting for much of the last two decades.
Ah, but technically this is not Snoop Dogg, rapper of “Gin & Juice” and countless other odes to thug life. It’s Snoop Lion, the result of a name change, and possibly other transformations, that came about after a trip to Jamaica made him see things through a prism of “peace, love and struggle,” as he puts it.
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Having hit 40 and growing bored with gangsta rap, Snoop decided to take a trip to the land of Marley and record a reggae album. (“I started seeing some similarities between me and Bob, not only because of smoking weed but because of the struggles,” he said). So he gathered a film crew led by Andy Cappers, the editor of Vice magazine, and lit out for the Caribbean.
The result is “Reincarnated,” a movie that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday and mixes travelogue with recording sessions and Snoop’s musings on life. (Also, enough pot smoking to make Cheech and Chong look like a Nancy Reagan PSA.)
Cappers shoots the movie with a relaxed, just-hanging-out vibe. The musician meets with Bunny Wailer, visits Marley’s old stomping grounds and sets out to record an album in a coastal villa. (Some of the locals are surprised to see him; a local woman even walks up to him and tells him he looks like Snoop Dogg, the American “who sings songs.” He deadpans to her that he gets that a lot.)
Snoop draws several counterfactual parallels between the hardscrabble parts of Jamacia’s Trench Town and his own native Long Beach, suggesting that had he been born in these difficult conditions he might have turned to love and harmony instead of gun-waving and thuggery. (The ganja would have been the same).
The musician can seem a little naïve — did he not realize there was a lot of poverty in Jamaica, or that some people in other cultures smoked pot as a religious act? — but well-meaning. The movie culminates with a spiritual ceremony in which a Rasta leader rechristens him “Berhane,” a “light unto the world,” and instructs him to make good on the name. He says he plans on it with the release of the new album, also titled “Reincarnated,” and the first single, “La La La,” which came out in July.
“I think I’m going to be a great spotlight and attention-getter [for the Rasta life],” he said in the interview. “I’m the people’s champion, I’m the voice, I’m the shoulder people cry on. I need to be the leader.” (The message, he said, was of “peace and love;” he didn’t get more specific.)
Snoop was decked out in full Rasta gear, multicolored plastic sunglasses and had a cane, the result of a hinky ankle. (He said he hurt it playing flag football, not a very gangsta rap injury.)
He remained emphatic about less violence — there’s a song titled “No Guns Allowed” on the new album — and barely stops short of making a connection between gangsta rap and mass shootings. “I don’t think we can make people do it. But I think we can make people not do it.” He said the issue of high school shootings resonated with him now that he has teenage children (sons Cordell and Spanky).
Because the director and his team were commissioned by Snoop, the movie is an up-close, if also fairly authorized, version of the artist and his trip. “He surprised me with everything he’s done. I’ve never seen anyone feel things so deeply,” Cappers said in an interview.
Though there’s little doubt Snoop comes by all this sincerely, the reinvention can feel a little premeditated. Most people who have transformative religious experiences don’t announce they want to add to their legacy and then hire a film crew to document it.
But Snoop says there’s nothing promotional about the enterprise.
“If this were for publicity or to sell more records, a business person would tell me not to do this,” he said in the interview. “Reggae would sell less albums than hip-hop because fans of Snoop Dogg love him for hip-hop.”
Whether he will be embraced by fans, let alone the gun-control and clean-lyrics lobby, remains to be seen. As for how his hip-hop brethren respond, Snoop says the reception “has been mixed.” Told that it indeed feels strange to hear him of all people preaching pacificism, he answered that he had seen a new path and was simply trying to show it to others.
“I’m not telling you how to live,” he said. “I’m just putting a dirty glass next to a clean glass and saying which one do you want to drink from?”
Snoop said he’d like to make another reggae album and continue with the transformation that began with Snoop Lion (a reference to the Rastafarians’ iconic lion of Judah).
And returning to hip-hop? “It’s my baby and I’ll always come back to see my baby But it has to be big, really special. Like maybe a motion picture soundtrack.”
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