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'Trouble the Water' star, rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, readies her CD

April 25, 2009 | 11:25 am

Now that the extraordinary Hurricane Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" has started airing on  HBO, this portrait of the devastating effects it had on one neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans is reaching a whole new audience.

And that’s encouraging news to Kimberly Rivers Roberts, the aspiring rapper whose remarkable home-video footage used extensively in the film allows for a ground-zero look at a national disaster.

That’s national, not natural, because even though a hurricane is considered, insurance-wise, “an act of God,” the worst damage came as a result of the failure of man-made levees and the ensuing inaction or wrong action on the part of the governmental agencies charged with assisting victims in their time of need.

Almost four years later, Roberts, who uses the name Black Kold Madina on the debut album she’s about to release on her own Born Hustler Records label, continues to see Katrina as a motivating force.

She had decided to videotape the storm as it approached because, like many of those living in poverty  in the 9th Ward, she had no means of escape. She and her husband, Scott, had recently sold their only car. So as the winds and rain whipped, she let the tape roll.

“When your poor, you’re always looking for ways to make money,” she told me when I visited her in New Orleans in January. We met at a neighborhood coffee shop, near streets named Piety and Desire, on the high side of the Mississippi River, where she and Scott moved upon returning to New Orleans several months after Katrina struck.

“I had this video camera and thought I might be able to sell something to one of the news stations,” she said. They got a couple of hours of tape as the waters rose after the levee broke, flooding several square miles of neighborhoods with as much as 8 feet of water. At one point in “Trouble the Water,” you see the view Roberts, her family and some of their neighbors had when looking out an attic vent down into the street, where only the top of a stop sign is visible above the muddy deluge.

Documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, associates of Michael Moore, were at the Superdome in the aftermath looking to interview survivors when Roberts made contact and showed them her video. They wound up using about 20 minutes of it, spread throughout the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and scored an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.

Before Katrina, Roberts and her husband had done whatever they could to make a living, including her work in French Quarter restaurants as a would-be chef as well as dealing drugs.

“I always loved to write music and rap, but I couldn’t find a way to get my music off the ground, “ she said. “I didn’t have the financial means to really get off the ground the way I wanted to, and I didn’t have the right people around me to show me that I had raw talent.”

One of the most powerful moments in “Trouble the Water” centers on Roberts, when she’s staying with a cousin in Memphis after leaving New Orleans.

“During the hurricane, I wasn’t thinking to save my music, but I was thinking to roll the camera. I lost all my music in the storm basically. I had all my music in the computer and my computer got wet up.

"I had sent my cousin a copy of my CD,” she said, although she’d forgotten that she’d done so. “I was still working on it -- you know how you give out little samples of stuff? They were underground discs. I didn’t have the money or resources to put it out on a large scale or have it in stores or anything.”

The cameras were rolling when she found the CD at her cousin’s house. In the scene, she puts it on a boom box, then starts rapping live to the song “Amazing,” an assertive expression of self-confidence and resilience that gains resonance following all she and her family had to withstand.

There was no soundtrack album with the film, so she’s issuing it on her own, working to capitalize on the exposure the film has brought to her and her music. "Amazing" and three others can be streamed on her website. Most of her material carries messages of empowerment, without soft-pedaling the injustice experienced by so many during the storm and after those troubled waters subsided.

“Music, like, freed me and gave me understanding,” Roberts said. “A lot of times. I felt lost. and I’d go to a certain song, and it’d give me wisdom. Man, I love music. I got a lot of guidance from music.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Kimberly and Scott Roberts in "Trouble the Water." Credit: Zeitgeist Films