Filmmaker Byron Hurt talks with rap artists, academic and cultural critics, religious leaders, and fans about the portrayal of Black manhood in rap music lyrics and videos. The end product is an intriguing film, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, that takes on not only issues of masculinity in hip-hop, but also misogyny, violence, and homophobia, from the perspective of a Black male hip-hop head (fan).
The documentary also shows how the capitalist entertainment industry, through hip-hop, markets images of the modern Black man that revive racist stereotypes of the Black Buck and the Black Brute.
Hip-hop gone corporate. As a former college football athlete and current anti-sexist educator, Hurt describes how multiple entertainment industries — music, radio, television, and sports — profit hugely from the distribution of rap music. Take U.S. sports for example, especially basketball. At most NBA or NCAA men’s events, audiences will hear popular rap music on the loudspeakers before the game, between plays, at halftime, and as background to the scantily clad female dancers who perform dance numbers to titillate the fans.
Jay-Z, rap artist turned music industry executive, is part of a team of investors who recently won a $300 million bid to purchase the New Jersey Nets with plans of moving them to a new stadium in Brooklyn. This “teamwork” is but one instance of the corporatization of hip-hop culture.
The brand of rap that Beyond Beats and Rhymes targets is illustrated in the film’s opening, a montage of rap music video imagery. Black male rappers flash their wealth and decadent lifestyle; a barrage of women in bikinis in a pool or at a club gyrate around a few unattractive rappers drinking the latest alcohol manufactured by a fellow rapper.
Hurt describes this market-driven image of male braggadocio as rappers being stifled by the box of manhood. To fit, he says, men must be “strong, tough, with lots of girls and money.” Most important, they have to be in control by dominating other people, including other men. If you’re not in this box, you’re called a bitch, buster, pussy, or faggot.
In a society that has not historically valued the self-worth of Black men, hip-hop provides a lucrative, powerful space for them to gain strength and exert control over those perceived as weaker, namely women and gay men.
Impact on youth. Hurt, like many others, is concerned about the impact these mean images in hip-hop have on young Black men and women. He visits the BET channel’s Spring Bling Weekend, and finds young men publicly molesting young women. When he questioned men on the scene about this, some said that women don’t deserve this treatment. Others thought that women bring it on themselves by walking down the street in provocative clothes. The girls he talked to, though, insisted that they have the right to wear whatever they choose in public and not be physically attacked.
Fleshing out an aspect of Black manhood that is often left out or glossed over, Hurt interviewed several young drag queens. They described their experience with Black men who solicit them for sex on the down low. Their stories revealed the hypocrisy of Black male rappers who routinely use “faggot” as a term of derision, but use the opportunity of Spring Bling to engage in MSM (men sleeping with men).
Beyond Beats and Rhymes is a great tool for educators, activists and community organizers. Its national broadcast on PBS was preceded by a community engagement campaign focused on building awareness around the film’s themes: masculinity, gender violence and homophobia, as well as literacy and responsibility.
The campaign’s website, www.itvs.org/outreach/hiphop, provides a wealth of information that can be used by educators, activists and community organizers. To get Beyond Beats on DVD, check out www.media ed.org/videos.
Raising the bar. Meanwhile, underground and alternative hip-hop is fighting back. It has been a space for female performers and for other artists who resist misogyny and, to some extent, homophobia. In Seattle, the entertainers and activists jointly tackle a myriad of social issues through hip-hop — like police brutality, domestic violence, sexism, racism, and artists’ rights.
In the Seattle mix are all-women hip-hop showcases, the female leadership of activist organizations like 206 Zulu, and local radio programs like Street Sounds and Afragenesis. They are addressing community issues head on. Recent panel discussions at Festival Sundiata, an annual celebration of African American culture, discussed male and female perspectives on hip-hop.
Underground hip-hop is providing the soundtrack to anti-racist, feminist, and queer-positive activism — a thrilling and welcome counterpoint to the corporate scene.
Hip-hop head Mako Fitts is an assistant professor of sociology at Seattle University. She is affiliated with the Seattle-area chapter and national office of the Hip Hop Congress.