Yes We Can Can


“Grandad, what do you when you can’t do nothing, but there’s nothing you can do?”

“You do what you can.”

— “The Hunger Strike”, The Boondocks

In early 2006 the Sundance Film Festival premiered an innocuously titled documentary called Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes. The film was in fact a frank exploration of sexism and homophobia in hip-hop. Director Byron Hurt framed the film as Joe Q. Hip-Hop Fan’s pursuit of the truth. However, with participation from major rappers, industry heavyweights, scholars, and even reality show contestant turned city councilman Kevin Powell, the film summarized may of the mainstream ills affecting hip-hop culture.

Considering the gravity of the shots being fired, Hurt was understandably modest in his expectations. He conceded to PopMatters‘ Stephen Stirling that the media would have to play a significant role in addressing these problems, though that institution was “less likely to change than anything else”. However, he was also understandably hopeful: “What I really want is for somebody with a lot of money to fall in love with this film,” he said at the film’s premiere.

Critics widely praised the film for its candor in discussing what Stirling described as hip-hop’s “unmentionable topics”. Even media outlets criticized in the film acknowledged the film by either reporting on it, or sending a low-level executive to respond. I don’t work in P.R., but a few of my friends do and I’ve learned enough from them to identify this as a “successful campaign”.

Earlier this year, the film became available on DVD through Media Education Foundation. The progressive distributor, which includes Noam Chomsky, Michael Eric Dyson (who is interviewed in the film), bell hooks, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West on its Board of Advisors, describes its mission as “to answer the challenge posed by the radical and accelerating corporate threat to democracy”. The film thereby found comfort in the company of like-minded educational tools, such as Dreamworlds, a series of documentaries on the gender politics explored in contemporary music videos, The Pathology of Privilege, a lecture by Tim Wise on white privilege, and an entire Edward Said box set. In the past such company has not led to big money outcomes, let alone the type of attention Hurt hoped for. So, what truly lies beyond for Beats & Rhymes?

Frankly, the future of the film is not as important as the potential for the film’s impact. Rest assured: the film will have a robust second life working the prog-left chitlin’ circuit where it will receive standing O’s in university mess halls across the nation. All to say: there is a future — it just won’t be so grand or idyllic. However, Hurt’s personal goal “to push consciousness and make people think critically” is rendered useless if the conversation cannot take place in the mainstream. Considering hip-hop’s deep embedding into corporate culture — an area not known for self-reflection, let alone democracy and agency — how can such radical change even be considered?

The recent “censure” of The Boondocks demonstrates the difficulties art faces in raising a critical conversation in a corporate setting. In a two-episode arc, the Adult Swim/Cartoon Network series took its cousin BET (Viacom oversees both networks) to task for questionable programming choices and an adverse impact on black culture. Both episodes reportedly aired on the network’s affiliate station in Canada, but to date have not been scheduled to air in the U.S.

The Boondocks
(Art by Aaron McGruder)

Being a satiric cartoon, the episodes naturally took a comic stance. However, the extremity of parody in these episodes can easily be described as a case of biting the hand that writes your paycheck. Case in point: in the opening minutes of the episode “The Hunger Strike”, the satiric personification of BET CEO Debra Lee (parodied here as the Austin Powers-like Debra Le-evil) bursts out at an executive meeting, “The destruction of black people is not happening fast enough! The other day I saw three ni**as reading books…and they were smiling!” as she impales a subordinate in the jugular with her (left) high heel. While the ferocity of the scene makes it one of the more outlandish moments in the series, it is also indicative of the level of emotion regarding the subject.

Such indirect censure is indicative of the absence of dialogue and intolerance towards process in corporate culture. Which may seem like a tangential topic to hip-hop. But for anyone who regards hip-hop as an art, such censure should be alarming. Hip-hop, like any art, identifies systems in society and responds to them. In fact, hip-hop’s historic approach has been to invert those systems — from graffiti in public spaces to breaking beats into fragments. If hip-hop is unable to respond to or question societal norms, then it becomes neutered. It becomes nothing more than a CD/mp3, or ringtone, or t-shirt — in other words, a product. Or, better still, a lifestyle to move multiple products.

I suppose this is my long-winded way to endorse a new product without necessarily imploring you to cop it. Frankly, celebrating the continuation of Byron Hurt’s journey by buying this DVD isn’t enough. And certainly no one expects a mass uprising or boycott on behalf of the film. But perhaps keeping the film’s messages in mind when you get that tax rebate would be a start.

By the way, heard the latest Roots album?