By Rachel Tennenbaum
In his documentary “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” filmmaker Byron Hurt begins with a confession.
“I want to make this very clear to all my viewers out there: I love hip-hop. Whoever you want to talk about in hip-hop — I listened to their music, I partied to their music, I listen to hip-hop to this day,” he said, then paused and looked at the camera. “I sometimes feel bad for criticizing hip-hop, but I guess what I’m trying to do is to get us men to take a hard look at ourselves.”
And so goes the introduction to a 61-minute film that cuts to the core of mainstream hip-hop, exposing its soft underbelly for all to see. Among interviews with recording artists, moguls and kids rhyming on the street, Hurt slowly uncovers the deep threads of male sexism, misogyny, homophobia and homoeroticism running rife through the music. Hurt himself will be speaking on these issues at UC Santa Cruz on April 17.
Clearly, these aren’t categories that hip-hop heads would hasten to add to the list. After a close listen to local radio giant, KDON, however, the themes will unavoidably present themselves.
Here are the lyrics for rap artist Ray-J’s newest single, “Sexy Can I.” “Sexy can I/hit it from the front/then I hit it from the back/know you like it like that/then we take it to the bed, then we take it to the floor/then we chill for a second, then we’re back at it some more.”
Admittedly, the song has a danceable beat, which is probably why it’s in KDON’s top 10. But others have some qualms with the lyrics, particularly since at one point in the song Ray-J confesses that he has a “girl at home” so he can’t take his new prize back to his house.
These images were something that bothered Hurt, so he stepped into the role of filmmaker to “examine representations of manhood in hip-hop culture.”
Hurt was raised on Long Island, and spent most of college as a star quarterback for the Northeastern Huskies. After college, he started touring schools, speaking to young men about sexism and violence against women, focusing specifically on what men could do to prevent sexual assault. It was during his time as a speaker that he began to feel tensions between what he was teaching and the music he loved.
The process was not easy for Hurt. “It took a little time to muster up the courage and to figure out the best way to make this film,” he told City On A Hill Press. “As a filmmaker I felt as though I needed to develop and grow, and as a hip-hop fan I had to muster up the courage to deal with these serious issues that I was in conflict about.”
For Dabeiba Dietrich, the event coordinator for the Women’s Center who originally thought of inviting Hurt to UCSC, the event gives the Women’s Center a chance to stretch its wings and reach out to a multitude of UCSC communities.
“Sometimes people get trapped in these ideas that only women can come to the [Women’s Center] events or that these issues only exclusively affect women,” Dietrich said. “What it means to be a man affects men and women of color both.”
And she has a point. Although “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” sets out to address the idea of manhood in hip-hop, the idea transcends categories, which became evident as Hurt interviewed people about attitudes toward women (asking what kind of woman qualifies as a “bitch,” for example) and the homophobia often found in hip-hop lyrics.
While discussions of misogyny are to be expected, the response that Hurt generates from artists when asking about homosexuality is shocking. At one point, rapper Busta Rhymes simply gets up and walks out of the interview. This is then countered by an interview with former editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine, Emil Wilbekin, who postulates about homoeroticism within music videos and magazine covers, pointing out that the men are usually shirtless and greased up.
As Hurt carefully points out, not buying into violent or cruel lyrics is not a matter of supporting the artist. There is an entire system that was created around this.
“I think the industry realized that they can follow a formula,” Hurt said. “Follow a pattern of success of certain artists that talked about gun-toting. It was music that was not subversive, that did not challenge, that did not educate audiences, that didn’t have a threatening political agenda. It was music geared toward black men killing other black men. It was easy to market and it was easy to sell, and that’s what we did.”
For Hurt, it’s not individual artists who need to be persuaded to change, but an entire value system that has to be hauled over. In the film, young men know that this is what the industry wants to hear; that there isn’t a place for socially conscious rap, but they are willing to make that sacrifice in order to achieve what others have — lots and lots of money.
A paradigm shift is already in the works in Santa Cruz. Beth Sachnoff, a fourth-year communities studies student, spent the fall interning in New York City with the Hip Hop Association, a group which works to put hip-hop in the classroom as a learning tool.
Sachnoff initially saw “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” when she was staying in New York.
“There were all these really provocative conversations that I hadn’t had before that were provoked from the film, that were about the subject of masculinity, violence, homophobia and sexism in hip-hop,” Sachnoff said. “I wanted to continue those conversations in Santa Cruz.”
Sachnoff decided to incorporate the documentary into her senior project, for which she will conduct a two-day lesson on hip-hop, masculinity and gender issues at local Barrios Unidos High School. Using the film as a starting point, she will also invite students to watch Hurt speak.
“I’m seeing this lesson as a media literacy workshop,” Sachnoff said. “I want them to be able to digest what they’re seeing and realize it’s being created by someone who doesn’t look like them, who probably doesn’t care about them, but wants them for monetary reasons, wants them to buy their product or believe something about what it means to be a man or a woman.”
And what will Sachnoff tell her students once they need to find music elsewhere?
“I’m a big believer in creating your own media,” she said. “Just because it’s not being played on the radio doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If there’s something missing, search it out. If you can’t find it, create it yourself.”
Still, listening to hip-hop and wanting to change is easy; figuring out how is hard.
Dietrich shared the sentiment. “It’s hard to walk that line. I’m not going to lie, I listen to some Ludacris songs that talk about the same thing that I’m trying to go against and I’m like ‘oh yeah, I just like the beat,’” Dietrich said. “I’m not listening to the words that he’s saying. But I am listening to the words that [Ludacris] is saying. I am reproducing this stuff. I have the song, I like the song.”
Hurt agrees that it’s not easy.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m not saying any of this stuff is easy. What makes hip-hop so complicated is that it’s intoxicating. It’s so easy to fall in love with a song because of the beat.”
But at some point, the guilt overwhelms the pleasure, and that’s when it’s time to try and find some better beats, some more socially conscious rhymes.
“The conflict is good because now that you know what you’re doing, what this song is about, it’s not cool,” Hurt said. “It’s about changing your behavior when you know something is not right. You have to make a choice.”
_Byron Hurt will be speaking at the Stevenson Event Center at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday, April 17. Contact the Women’s Center for more information. Check out Byron Hurt at BHurt.com or at http://www.myspace.com/beyondbeatsandrhymes._