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    Friday, August 12, 2022

    Ludacris and 'Karma's World' prove that hip-hop is for the kids

    From “The Boondocks” to “The Simpsons” to “Afro Samurai,” there is a well-established history of rappers lending their voices and music to animated TV shows. But there’s a lot more to “Karma’s World,” which was created by rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. The animated Netflix series follows a 10-year-old girl named Karma Grant (voiced by Asiahn Bryant) as she navigates life in her close-knit Brooklyn community and pursues her passion for hip-hop.

    Inspired by the eldest of Bridges’s four daughters, “Karma’s World” has been more than a decade in the making. Long before it debuted as a Netflix series in 2021 — and well before the rapper delighted the internet by rapping the words to the children’s story “Llama Llama Red Pajama” — Bridges was struggling to keep 6-year-old Karma out of his home studio, where she often told him she wanted to follow in his footsteps. She was so persistent, he recalled in an interview with The Washington Post, he realized he had to take her seriously. “Daddy talks about what goes on in his life,” he told her. If she wanted to make music, she would have to do the same thing.

    Bridges and Karma, now 20, created an educational website that debuted in 2011 and marked the first iteration of “Karma’s World.” The site was revamped a few years later, and with every version, Bridges said, the music got better, the animation and storytelling richer. As the TV series got underway, Bridges came in with a clear vision. “I want to move hip-hop culture forward with this show,” head writer Halcyon Person recalled the rapper saying in their first meeting. “I don’t want to just make another show — I want to really feel like we are changing the next generation of kids and bringing hip-hop to a whole new generation in a new way.”

    In addition to his role as creator and an executive producer on the show, Bridges has infused “Karma’s World” with his Southern-fried sound, so much so that Karma’s flow sounds subtly familiar. “There are definitely elements that I can’t run away from,” Bridges said, but the key is “understanding the elements of just simplifying things” so that kids take in both the catchy tunes and the lessons.

    Bridges also lends his famously crisp diction to Karma’s father, Conrad, who reliably comes through with the dad jokes, in addition to the advice he regularly gives his daughter. (On Karma’s favorite rapper: “MC Grillz? Does he barbecue?”)

    The show’s brief episodes (13 minutes including credits) are as steeped in curriculum as they are in hip-hop culture. An early installment, “Hair Comes Trouble,” breaks down the concept of microaggressions after some of Karma’s non-Black friends pepper her with insensitive questions about her curly hair and why she wears a bonnet when she sleeps. Karma unpacks her feelings in the way that feels most natural to her: rap. “I always thought my hair was beautiful the way it was / but now I’m questioning myself and I don’t feel the love / All because my hair is different from my other friends / Should I change my look? / Should I follow trends?”

    9 Story Media Group, which produces “Karma’s World” alongside Bridges’s Karma’s World Entertainment, has an ongoing partnership with the Perception Institute, a research consortium that consults on every episode of the show to ensure storylines avoid bias and stereotypes. The collaboration helps the writers dig deeper, according to Person. For the hair episode, that meant pushing beyond the typical anti-bullying story in favor of “a more complex, nuanced and difficult story.”

    There are already “really great stories that help kids handle bullies and handle that kind of negative talk,” Person said. “But we had not seen a story like this one, which was really about what happens when a friend does that to you. How do you handle that?”

    “Karma’s World” has joined the pioneering “Proud Family,” along with “Doc McStuffins,” “Ada Twist, Scientist” and Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short “Hair Love” in increasing representation in children’s animation. Karma’s family — including her mom, Lillie (Danielle Brooks), and kid brother, Keys (Camden Coley) — and neighbors have a range of skin tones and hair textures so detailed that in some frames it’s hard to believe they’re animated. Karma’s best friend, Winston (Isaia Kohn), is Dominican American, speaks Spanglish with his family and sports a mop of chestnut curls. Her friend Switch (Aria Capria) sports multicolored pigtails.

    Many of the episodes are based on experiences that Karma Bridges went through as a kid, but the show has also consulted with other children to find out which topics they need to be covering. “We went to Brooklyn and talked to kids and got their experiences, truly asked them every question under the sun,” Person said. “What do you and your friends do at recess? What are you reading right now?” That level of research sets “Karma’s World” apart, Person said. In an episode from the new season, Winston designs a pair of vivid sneakers for a school assignment but is hurt when Karma doesn’t like them. The writers wanted to tell a story about opening your mind but weren’t sure kids would get it.

    “If anything, we saw that kids were not only ready for that conversation but were going even deeper than we ever expected,” Person said.

    The third season of “Karma’s World” is streaming on Netflix.

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