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Beyond Beats and Rhymes: Masculinity in Hip Hop

With his new documentary, <i>Beyond Beats and Rhymes: Masculinity in Hip Hop Culture</i>, Byron Hurt hopes to expose and take apart the structures of violence, hyper-aggression, and misogyny present in much of today's hip hop.
 
 
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"When I met you last night baby
Before you opened up your gap
I had respect for ya lady
But now I take it all back"
-- Snoop Doggy Dogg

"From the window to the wall
To the sweat drop down my balls
All you bitches crawl"
-- Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz

"Man this hoe you can have her,
when I'm done I ain't gon keep her
Man, bitches come and go, every nigga pimpin know"
-- 50 Cent

Ah, the sweet sound of misogyny -- every time I turn on the radio. And turning on the TV is even worse. Video after video on channels like BET and MTV accosts us with images of rappers throwing money at half naked women. And mainstream hip hop is more popular than ever. But if sex and violence sell — particularly when combined — there's nothing anybody can do about it. Or, that's what the record companies want us to believe. Fortunately, they don't have everyone convinced.

Young filmmaker Byron Hurt is not just unconvinced, he wants to challenge the system. In his new documentary, Beyond Beats and Rhymes: Masculinity in Hip Hop Culture , Byron presents images, samples and interviews that he hopes will expose and take apart the structures of violence, hyper-aggression, and misogyny present in much of today's hip hop.

Produced by Stanley Nelson, known for such documentaries as Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, the 60-minute film will run on PBS later this year. Not content with merely this audience, however, Byron is taking matters into his own hands by showing the film on college campuses across the nation. In speaking to him, it's easy to see why.

"So much of the ills in our society come from the way we men define manhood," says Byron, adding, "I want this film to really get men to question and to challenge the way we're socialized and conditioned."

He became familiarized with the realities of black masculinity when making the film I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America . An anti-sexism activist, Byron has also worked for a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention for the Marine Corps where he held training, workshops, and lectures for U.S. Marines, fraternity brothers, coaches, activists, and teachers. Byron stresses the need to educate boys and men in the African-American community, in particular, about what it means to be male in our society. Encouraging such discussion, he believes, has the possibility to spark important social change.

In the process of making the film, Byron interviewed a number of male rappers -- from LL Cool J, Wyclef Jean, and Fat Joe to Chuck D, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. (Although only the last four appear in the final version of the film.) He also spoke with a variety of hip-hop scholars and historians, and tried to take on some of the major decision makers in the hip-hop industry. Perhaps most poignant, however, are his interactions with kids. In one scene, Byron captures the voices of several young aspiring rappers spewing out words of hate, violence, and sexism for the camera. When Byron challenges them, they are un-phased. " That's how you get paid," they respond, implying, no one wants to hear anything positive, so why even try?

Don't be mistaken. Beyond Beats and Rhymes is not a crusade to change the face of the mainstream music industry. "I'm not na�ve," says Byron. "I don't think my film is going to change the industry. It's an amoral business culture. They're not concerned with changing society, they're concerned with making money. So I focused on how this affects the people who see this film." Byron hopes this practical approach will inspire viewers to open their minds and be self-reflective. "It's up to us as consumers to challenge some of the representations of masculinity that we see in American culture," he says. "We have to start saying, ‘I don't buy into this idea that a man is supposed to be violent or sexist or homophobic.'"

Film editor Sabrina Gordon worked with Byron on Beyond Beats . She also expresses concern about the limited scope of images and representation in commercial, mainstream hip-hop. "There's a certain disconnect between what's commercial and the culture as a whole," she says.

Beyond Beats and Rhymes also presents its audience with some of the more socially-conscious and politically-substantive voices that tend to constitute underground hip hop and rap. As Sabrina sees it, "There's some content that's just not about violence or sexism," she says. "It's not preaching, but it touches on a range of human experiences."

In the film, Byron asks why it's nearly impossible to find provocative, meaningful, lyrics in the mainstream. As much as he promotes more conscious artists such as Dead Prez or Coup, Byron finds it problematic that it is so difficult to gain access to their music. "I think the biggest thing is that it doesn't have the credibility that the mainstream hip hop has because it doesn't get the marketing, the promotion, the coverage, and the exposure."

Besides being an overall inspiring film, Beyond Beats and Rhymes has a very strong activist component. Byron wants it to become an important educational tool; He plans on creating a curriculum to be taught in conjunction with the documentary and he is currently hosting screenings at colleges across the nation. Colleges, he says, are important places to show the film -- important because "that's one place where young people are engaging in critical thinking. They're there to push their own consciousness and I think that's a really great place for change to begin." Byron also hopes to use this film in prisons and juvenile detention centers where he thinks many young men have bought into societal views of masculinity.

More than anything, Byron and Sabrina want to reach as many people with this film as possible. "PBS has a certain demographic, but I also want to reach the people I'm making the film for, and that's young people inside the hip-hop generation, particularly young males," says Byron. This is why he is encouraging as many young people as possible to tune in to PBS later this year when Beyond Beats and Rhymes premiers, in an effort to "attract a large hip-hop audience to PBS."

Beyond Beats and Rhymes can have a huge impact on a wide variety of Americans if we let it. The only way to do that is to draw as much attention to the film as possible, Byron points out. He adds, "I want people to know that there is someone doing this kind of work—an anti-sexist activist trying to transform people's minds."

To help spread the word, check out www.bhurt.com or visit The Independent Television Service and The National Black Programming Consortium to send feedback about the project or to learn about similar endeavors in television and film.

Suemeda Sood, 20, is a student at the University of Virginia.