Every family has its unmentionable topics. Religion, politics, the uncle no one likes to think about; there are some subjects that just don’t make for proper dinner conversation. After all, a civil family is a happy family. Documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt doesn’t think the hip-hop family is any different. After years of civility, quietly clearing his plate, Hurt has excused himself from the table, unable to hold his tongue any longer about the issues brooding beneath hip-hop’s glossy surface.
Hurt has spent several years studying gender violence and masculinity within the African-American community. His first documentary, I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America provided a thought provoking look into how the concepts of sexism, misogyny, and heterosexuality manifest themselves in a black male living in a white patriarchal society. Hurt said that as his work continued and his gender consciousness increased, he became increasingly critical of hip-hop and decided he could invigorate a conversation by applying several of the same issues covered in I Am a Man to the hip-hop industry.
“I grew up listening to hip-hop, so I’m emotionally connected to hip-hop. But the more I learned and the more I developed as a pro-feminist male the more I realized that there were a lot of issues that could be addressed,” Hurt said.
Beyond Beats and Rhymes: Masculinity in Hip-Hop Culture, his second full-length documentary was the outcome of his realization. In the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 24, Hurt interviews dozens of hip-hop artists, record executives, activists, and cultural critics about the effects on society of an art form that oozes hypermasculinity, violence, and homophobia.
“My role as a documentary filmmaker is to push consciousness and make people think critically,” he said. “If I can get people to view hip-hop, good. If I can inspire people to question what they know about it, great. If I can inspire people to organize and take action on these issues, you know, that would be amazing.”
Despite his strong beliefs on the subject, Hurt has humble expectations of what his film will accomplish.
“Really I know that my film is just one film that’s competing against a corporate culture that comes out with hypermasculine, homophobic products on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “A lot of this too is just a matter of me expressing myself, of me expressing viewpoints, of me wanting to make a contribution to hip-hop culture.”
A 1993 graduate of Northeastern University, where he played quarterback, Hurt became interested in gender violence issues shortly after he left school when he was courting a position with the Mentors in Violence Prevention project (MVP), a leadership program that motivates young men and women to work together to prevent gender violence. Initially reluctant to take the position, Hurt’s interest was spurred after talking to Jackson Katz, the project’s director and one of America’s leading male anti-sexism activists.
“He asked me, ‘How does the African-American community benefit from gender violence?’ That really struck me. It really inspired me to do something positive for my community,” he said.
Over the course of his tenure with MVP (including work with the US Marine Corps) and the five years he spent researching and filming his first documentary, Hurt gained valuable insight into what makes a male in the African-American community who he is. He realized that much of the hypermasculine attitude present in the hip-hop community is rooted in the upbringing of the typical male in America.
“Men in the industry are indoctrinated in this culture. Most men are raised with the same ideas of what it means to be a man. If you don’t have somebody in your life to get you to question this stuff, you’re just going to fit right in with what is normal and socially acceptable,” he said.
Hurt says that these themes of masculinity shine through many hip-hop artist’s lyrics, style, and mannerisms.
“The problem with these themes is that it tells young men how to be, how to act.”
Beyond Beats and Rhymes also takes a look at homophobia in the hip-hop community. Filming this portion of the film, Hurt experienced both ends of the spectrum; discouraging and enlightening.
Hurt said that several people awkwardly answered questions or were very non-committal. When he brought it up to Busta Rhymes, he left the room entirely.
“A lot of times men want to deflect and not talk about it as if it’s a problem,” he said. “People just don’t want to deal with homophobia. American culture, black culture, hip-hop culture; they’re all homophobic.”
Not all were so quick to duck and run. Hurt said that not only were a number of artists like Fat Joe and Jadakiss open to the discussion, but Talib Kweli even went as far to say that he thinks a gay rapper could make it if he were “nice enough” on the mic.
The film also takes a look at hip-hop on a homoerotic platform. Hurt spoke with members of the gay community about homoerotic subtext within hip-hop. They spoke of things like sweaty, oiled-up bodies in videos, strong male-male relationships, and smaller details, such as the low-slung pants that many rappers wear.
“It illustrated a picture of what homoeroticism in hip-hop looks like. You have this art form that’s deeply homophobic, yet a lot of gay men are really interested in this. There’s this tension; its very homoerotic, yet very thug.”
Overall, Hurt said he found a broad kind of moral anxiety that permeates much of the community, where most artists will inadvertently posture and position themselves towards an anti-gay stance. Many of them, he said, actually seem much more open on the topics of homophobia, misogyny, and violence than they appear in their music.
“When you get them in a studio, they become something else,” he said. “That social pressure exists to be within that box of what it means to be a man. You see it all over.”
Hurt believes that industry pressure also plays a role in this. The music industry, he said, relies on selling music that resonates with a large audience, that’s easily consumable. It’s easier for them to create art or music that fits within this mold, which many of the concepts Hurt champions, do not. While he believes there are a number of artists that bring a social critique to their work, they are largely outnumbered.
“By and large the industry doesn’t really care about creating art that’s socially redeeming or challenges patriarchy. The music industry is largely amoral, and concerned mainly with making money,” he said. “Making music that’s socially uplifting is not a priority. Priority is making music that’s socially viable, and I think that the artists know that and they do what sells.”
Despite his misgivings toward several problems rooted within it, Hurt’s love affair with hip-hop continues.
“It’s so honest, it’s so crass. It’s so in your face. Put a dope beat on and I have no choice but to bob my head to it. It’s involuntary. There’s something about the tough, rugged, gritty aesthetic that resonates with me as a man, I identify with it,” he said.
After premiering at Sundance, Beyond Beats and Rhymes will air on PBS’s Independent Lens at a date yet to be announced. While Hurt will undoubtedly continue his work against gender violence, he’s unsure we will see a change within the hip-hop community any time soon.
“I think its going to take a lot of media literacy and education. The industry has to play a big role in that too, and I think that’s less likely to change than anything else. If there’s more preventative education for men, you’ll see more guys resisting the narrow visions of manhood, but it’s going to take commitment.”