Here’s a PBS documentary that’s worth setting your DVRs for on Feb. 20: Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It’s part of the Independent Lens series that Terrence Howard is hosting. In Beats, Byron Hurt, a former college football star who used to listen to LL Cool J to get pumped up for a game, explores manhood in hip-hop culture — a culture that he always found himself defending. It wasn’t until after graduation when Hurt got a job lecturing about violence against women that he became very conflicted about the music he loved. Eventually, he bought a camera, hired a sound crew and mustered up the courage to question the hip-hop community about violence, misogyny and homophobia. He interviewed people across the spectrum, from young unknown rappers to industry heavyweights such as Russell Simmons, Chuck D, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, De La Soul, Talib Kweli and Jadakiss. Here’s a primer on what he found:
BET SpringBling, a three-day affair in Daytona, Fla.
“The women were being sexually harassed and groped on the street,” he recently recalled in an interview with PopWatch. “I knew that stuff like that happened, but the level of the degradation that was going on down there was surprising, shocking and also very sad. Very sad.”
You realize it’s a touchy subject when Hurst asks Busta Rhymes about it and the rapper walks out of the room saying, “I can’t even talk to you about that. With all due respect, I ain’t trying to offend nobody… what I represent culturally doesn’t condone it whatsoever.” Hurt believes this kind of thinking is deep-seeded in black history. “Black people who are close-minded about sexual orientation, it’s hard for them to make that connection because there’s this emotional attachment to like the civil rights movement, to slavery, to being oppressed,” he says. “There’s also something about gay people being seen as less-than and devalued. You don’t want to be put in that same category with gay people. And then you have to factor in the impact that religious institutions have had on the minds of black people when it comes to homosexuality. Also, if you’re sympathetic towards gay people it makes you seem less hard. And that’s something I had to consider. Just by me including homophobia and homoeroticism in my film, I knew that there were going to be people who were going to question whether I was straight or gay.”
Did he just say homoeroticism?
Yep. Ironic, dontcha think? He makes a good point here: Ladies aren’t the only ones looking at the oiled-up muscular rappers featured on the covers of hip-hop magazines.
Some women aren’t helping the problem.
In Daytona, some women are asked about whether they are offended by being called bitches in some rap lyrics, but they say that’s the guy’s own personal problem and they‘re not really talk about them, per se. Hurt is flabbergasted, and adds in the doc that “It’s funny when I hear women say, ‘When these rappers are calling women bitches and hos, they’re not talking about me.’ It’s like, ‘Yo, they are talking about you. If George Bush was to get on national TV and make a speech and he started calling black people n—-rs, would you be like, ‘I don’t know who George Bush is talking about, but he isn’t talking about me’?”
Young people are sick of being pigeonholed.
But they feel like they have no choice. Young rappers feel that the industry doesn’t want to hear them rapping about righteousness, that the only thing that sells are raps about bulletproof vests and the number of women at their beck and call. But Hurt thinks there’s hope. “I think a lot more young people are questioning and challenging what they’re receiving than most people think,” he says. “I’ve been going around the country showing this film, and I think you would be surprised by how many young people are tired of what they’re seeing.”
We want to hear from you, PopWatchers
Are you tired of seeing the same old images and stereotypes being presented in lyrics and music videos? Do you think a well-known rapper could come out of the closet and still be successful? Do you think rappers are conflicted: on the one hand they’re rapping about the rough upbringing they might have had, which historically has been the way people vent about their lives, and then on the other are trying to be good citizens? (Nelly, for instance, is known for his misogynistic lyrics but at the same time he gives back to the community through various philanthropic efforts.) Why do hip-hop artists have to act like they’re hard?