Beyond beats and rhymes

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Beyond beats and rhymes

How far has hip hop come and where will it go next?

by April Gregory on Friday, February 22, 2013 - 11:30am

poster for Hip Hop Beyond Beats & Rhymes“It must be your ass, ‘cause it ain’t your face,” raps hip hop artist Nelly, as he slides a credit card down a woman’s backside. This scene in Nelly’s “Tip Drill” music video is among the most shocking in Byron Hurt’s critically-acclaimed documentary “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” recently screened at Stanford University. This image from “Tip Drill” epitomizes the degradation of women in hip hop that prompted Hurt to make the film in 2006. It’s an image that continues to incite strong opinion among hip hop fans – and critics – today.

“Beyond Beats and Rhymes” explores issues of violence, sexism, and homophobia in hip hop by going straight to the source: rap artists and hip hop fans. Interviews, music video analyses, and commentary from hip hop scholars paint a striking and sometimes difficult to watch portrait of a commodified hip hop culture.  However, the mainstream music industry – not hip hop artists – is the film’s main antagonist. By using sexism, violence, and hypermasculinity to sell its product, the industry prioritizes profits over human dignity.

History professor Allyson Hobbs invited Hurt to screen his film at Stanford, as part of her class on African American women’s history. Hobbs organized an event for the Stanford community that yielded a lively discussion of the current state of hip hop and what progress, if any, has been made in the years since the release of “Beyond Beats and Rhymes.”

A good hard look

By using sexism, violence, and hypermasculinity to sell its product, the music industry prioritizes profits over human dignity.

In the late 1970s, hip hop emerged in the Bronx as a form of protest art and self-empowerment in communities of color. While much of hip hop continues to reflect the legacy of “conscious rap,” the emergence of “gangsta rap” in the 1990s and “bling mentality” in the 2000s created a schism in the hip hop world.

Byron Hurt speaking to studentsMainstream rap artists became increasingly preoccupied with violent, materialistic, and misogynist subject matter. In Hurt’s perception, what was once a vehicle for political self-expression devolved into a sexually exploitative form. Images like the credit card scene in Nelly’s “Tip Drill” became normalized and even venerated in popular culture.

“Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” chronicles this transition, emphasizing its implications for African American men in particular. “I sometimes feel bad for criticizing hip hop,” Byron Hurt remarks in the film, “but I guess what I’m trying to do is get us men to take a good hard look at ourselves.” This self-examination is portrayed in the film through interviews with prominent rappers and hip hop scholars, as well as Hurt’s own personal ruminations.

“I had to be educated,” Hurt told a crowded lecture hall during the discussion. “I had to be taught. And I had to be challenged about certain ideas about manhood.” Hurt’s own evolution as a young man conflicted between his love of hip hop and his awareness of its misogynist, violent, and homophobic themes was the driving force behind the documentary.

Breaking out of the box

Seven years after its release, the film is still screened across the country and used as a tool for educating young people, especially young men, about the messages they encounter in hip hop culture.

Imani Franklin, a senior and Resident Assistant at Stanford, asked Hurt how she might “approach everyday guys” in her residence who reflect hip hop’s misogynist themes in their own behavior and language. Hurt insisted that the answer lies in guided discussions, facilitated in a way that gives young men “an opportunity to talk and be honest about their ideas around manhood and masculine identity in a way that’s not going to shut them down.”

Hurt speaking to studentsIndeed, Hurt returned to the idea of “reaching people where they are” as he answered audience questions on the seemingly impossible task of mitigating the sexism, violence, and homophobia that pervades hip hop. As an antisexist activist, Hurt has worked extensively with organizations serving young men, particularly young men of color, to assist them in rising above the confines of manhood prescribed by hip hop culture.

“I’m interested in bringing out the best in so many young men who have such great potential,” Hurt said. “We’re trying to free boys and men from trying to fit inside a box that doesn’t work for us, from a limited construction of masculinity that does not work for our mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.”

Despite change, more of the same

Several audience members challenged Hurt’s view of hip hop culture in light of recent changes in rap music trends. H. Samy Alim, an education professor and the director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, cited rappers like Drake and J. Cole as artists who are “trying to deal with their humanity” through their music. By making the contradictions between their morals and their career a regular theme in their songs, these artists, Alim claimed, are challenging the status quo.

Lawrence Neil, a Stanford junior, argued that today the medium of hip hop is giving artists more freedom to move beyond dominant, negative themes of sexism and violence. By releasing mixtapes on their personal blogs or Twitter pages, Neil claimed, rappers can release music free from the pressures of music labels with “sex and violence sell” mentalities. Hurt agreed that less “reliance on the gatekeeper” is “a really good thing” for hip hop. Self-promoted artists who challenge the industry’s monopoly on their creative freedom represent a promising break with norms of violence and misogyny. 

Self-promoted artists who challenge the industry’s monopoly on their creative freedom represent a promising break with norms of violence and misogyny.

However, Hurt argued that ultimately, hip hop has remained the same more than it has changed. In chart-topping rap songs, sexist and hypermasculine themes persist.

Though Hurt admitted he no longer listens to hip hop as much as he did in 2006, he still observes the same negative patterns of thought in hip hop when he turns on his radio. “I think thematically, many of the lyrics are fundamentally the same in terms of the dynamic between men and women,” Hurt said. “Men want to brag about ownership of female bodies.”

LaToya Peterson, editor of the pop culture blog Racialicious, echoed Hurt’s sentiments. Noting that “even though [hip hop] might sound different, it’s still the same misogynist packaging over and over again,” Peterson argued that regardless of the medium, the message remains the same.

“There’s a huge disconnect that we have learned to accept,” Peterson said of society’s love for hip hop despite its troubling messages. “Trying to overwrite that [disconnect] is an extremely uphill battle.”

Common ground: Promoting media literacy

Even though audience members disagreed with one another and with Byron Hurt about the state of hip hop today, most in attendance seemed to agree that promoting media literacy in young people is a worthwhile goal to pursue, one this is accomplished in part by Hurt’s documentary.

The future directions of hip hop may be unclear, but young people will surely continue to consume hip hop culture and, consequently, the images of hypermasculinity and misogyny it sometimes promotes. When asked about “the big picture” of hip hop culture and its implications for younger audiences, Hurt’s response was firm and unequivocal.

“Young men and women must know and understand what they are buying into or not buying into,” he said. “When you give people information about the images they are internalizing, they can make better and more informed choices.”

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The screening of  Byron Hurt's "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes" was organzined by Stanford University's Department of History. Co-sponsors included the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Stanford Arts Initiative, the Department of English, African & African American Studies, the Program in American Studies, the Program in Feminist Studies, the Department of Sociology, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Urban Studies, the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, and the Education and Society Theme House.

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Byron Hurt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, a published writer, and an anti-sexist activist. His film "Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes" premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It was later broadcast nationally on the Emmy award-winning PBS series "Independent Lens." To date, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes" has been selected to appear in more than 50 film festivals worldwide. His other films include "Barack & Curtis: Manhood, Power, and Respect," and "I AM A MAN: Black Masculinity in America."

 

April Gregory is a senior majoring in American studies and minoring in history. Her interests lie in race and education, hip hop culture, and historical memory. After graduating in spring 2013, Gregory hopes to take the first steps toward pursuing a long and varied career in education. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.