In conjunction with Pollock Theater, University of California, Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Center concluded its Social Issues in Modern Cinema series on April 28 with a screening of the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and a discussion with director Byron Hurt and world-famous MC and rapper, Chuck D from Public Enemy.
The film offers a riveting examination of the representation of manhood in contemporary hip-hop music and culture. Artists and hip-hop moguls like Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Talib Kwali, Chuck D, and Russell Simmons, as well as cultural critics, provide commentary and unique perspectives on the issue.
At the beginning, Hurt wants to be clear when he says, “I love hip-hop. I grew up with Big Daddy Kane, you know, the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul…I listen to that music. I party to that music…sometimes I feel bad for criticizing hip-hop, but I guess I’m doing this to get us men to take a hard look at ourselves.”
A hard look he takes, indeed. In fact, the film outlines the exaggerated violence, misogyny and sexism, homophobia, and hyper-masculinity that hip-hop culture has turned itself into and fostered, especially within the African-American community. Hurt believes that the definition of manhood that hip-hop has given young African-Americans is harmful. Consequently, viewers are given an experience that allows them to analyze many of the constructed and one-dimensional messages and images that have been presented to American audiences about African-American culture through hip-hop. According to Hurt, harmful stereotypes that have been presented in music videos and BET programming have commodified the African-American man to American audiences as an invulnerable, violent, sexually aggressive, and hyper-masculine figure.
“We’re like in this box and in order to be in that box you have to be strong, you have to be tough, you have to have a lot of girls, you got to have money, you got to be a player or a pimp, you got to be in control, dominate other men and other people,” Hurt says as he starts off the film.
Images of rappers surrounded by woman, throwing money at the camera, participating in gunplay and violence have then been ingrained into the minds of not only young African-American men, but all men, and have created a culture of misogyny and hyper-masculinity. For instance, there is a scene in the film at BET’s annual “Spring Bling” event in Daytona Beach, Florida where young aspiring rappers freestyle and “battle” with each other, solely focusing on gunplay, violence, and calling women derogatory terms. There are also innumerable instances of sexual harassment towards the female attendees of the events.
The film not only dissects these messages, but also points to a much darker and deeper cause. Statistically, 70 percent of mainstream, commercial hip-hop’s consumers are Caucasian, and the majority of record companies and mainstream hip-hop stations are owned by white men. For this reason, rappers feel pressured to cater to this audience, and, according to Chuck D, record companies often dangle contracts in front of aspiring rappers until they essentially choose a stereotype to embody and sell to the masses.
When Hurt interviews several rappers that have perpetuated these stereotypes, he gets some insightful responses. For example, he tells rapper Jadakiss, whom has produced a string of misogynistic and violent lyrics, “You talk about killing brothers like it ain’t nothing.” Jadakiss bluntly replies, “Have you seen the movies?” And in that moment, it becomes clear that hip-hop is an extension of American culture. Hip-hop is merely a reflection of this hyper-aggressive and hyper-sexual nation. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a cultural critic, says that “violent masculinity is at the heart of American identity,” so therefore, it stands to reason that commercial rappers like 50 Cent can be so commercially viable in a nation with a culture of violence.
Hip-hop started as a powerful tool for young activists and African-Americans to comment on social and political issues and to lift themselves up from their oppressive environments. Take Pollock Theater guest and rapper, Chuck D, from Public Enemy, for example. Public Enemy, a rap group formed in the early 1980s, is known for tracks like “Fight the Power” and “911 is a Joke” that have been noted for their hard, politically-charged lyrics. During the Q&A session following the film, Hurt commended contemporary rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole for bringing back politically-charged social commentary in hip-hop and American culture.
Chuck D finished the Q&A session with a poignant statement: “I tell artists all the time, the biggest challenge is always asking yourself: Do you believe what you wrote? What are you doing it for? Are you doing it for the ride or for the art? Do you really believe what you spit?” Unfortunately, commercial rap that enjoys economic success from the perpetuation of minority stereotypes often leaves rappers spitting lyrics they themselves do not believe in. Hurt’s documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, is an unrelenting and dissecting look into the Hip-Hop industry that shows us that these constructed images are sometimes just rappers free-styling an illusion.