Filmmaking | Interviews

Wake Up Mr. Listener

1 Feb , 2006  

Written by Erin Trahan | Posted by:

Former Northeastern University quarterback Byron Hurt takes a critical look at men, masculinity, and hip-hop culture with the Sundance premiere of his new documentary, Beyond Beats and Rhymes.

Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs In On Manhood In Hip-Hop Culture is filmmaker/activist Byron Hurt’s examination of the lyrics, images, and systems that together define manhood for hip-hop culture. He grew up on this music and his investigation comes from a place of love. He’s just tired of the rules being so narrow, "You have to be strong, you have to have girls, you have to have money… you have to dominate other men," he explains as the film opens. He moves from personal testimony to interviews with famous rappers, street rhymers, hip-hop fans, producers, scholars, and clips from video after video that start to look and sound the same. By the film’s close he connects this puffed-up ideal to his own experiences — how critical thinking led him to a broader, more realistic view of manhood — and how he believes in the day when hip-hop will loosen its narrow hold on men, boys, and anyone listening.

Erin Trahan: In Beyond Beats and Rhymes, you quickly introduce yourself as a football player, showing footage of you throwing a touchdown pass, and now I’m doing the same thing. How important is it to establish your "manhood" before you question masculinity in hip-hop?

Byron Hurt: It was definitely a strategy to legitimize my heterosexual male credibility up front. I want boys and men to identify me as someone they can relate to, so that they’ll think, "If he can be exploring these issues, maybe this guy is worth listening to."

ET: Isn’t that the approach used by Northeastern’s Mentors in Violence Prevention program, where you spent five years as one of their lead facilitators, educating college students about men’s violence against women? You responded to a call for former athletes?

Hurt: Yes, being a part of Mentors in Violence Prevention [MVP] prepared me for this film. It gave me all of the tools that I needed to have conversations with everybody from professors in academic settings to guys on the street. I wouldn’t have had the language to ask the proper questions… I wouldn’t have been able to form my thesis without MVP. But I almost didn’t do it. I was scared of what other guys would think of me. Then I saw an exercise and it raised my awareness about the magnitude of the problem.

ET: What was the exercise?

Hurt: Jackson Katz [founder of MVP] asked a group of men to raise their hands if they do things on a daily basis to protect themselves from sexual assault. Nobody, [not even] I, raised his hand. Then he asked the women, and all their hands went up. I was moved and saw it as an opportunity to make a difference.

ET: The work of MVP and similar advocates redefines terms in a way that puts men back into the equation, like calling it "men’s violence against women." How important is language to you?

Hurt: I was taught and I believe that language is extremely important. Using language that places the emphasis on men as the active agent in violence is very political. When you frame it that way, it names the oppressor. But it also makes people feel like you are targeting the oppressor, which can make them uncomfortable.

I struggle with language over and over again. What words to use, how to write the narration of this film, how to talk on camera. It was painstaking to come up with the most appropriate language to reach the broadest audience. I wanted the respect of scholars and feminists, people who know and understand gender issues. But I also wanted to be common and accessible and to talk the way normal people talk.

ET: Did you go through the same painstaking process to choose your language for race?

Hurt: Not as much. But one of the things I am really trying to do is make racial analogies that are easy to understand. I wanted to illustrate how problematic and normalized sexism and misogyny are, and one way is to draw parallels to racism. The most effective conversations I’ve had with black men make them see how women feel when they are sexually harassed. I make the analogy that when black men are harassed by police or in stores or they’re walking down the street and get looked at in a certain way just because they’re wearing baggy pants or hoodies, attire that is considered criminal, doesn’t mean they’re a criminal.

ET: What did you learn from taking your last documentary, I Am A Man: Black Masculinity in America, to hundreds of college campuses across the US? Did you apply any strategies to making Beyond Beats and Rhymes?

Hurt: I knew I wanted it to be intelligent and accessible and that people, especially young people, would be engaged from start to finish. I didn’t want to make a film where you are watching and feel like you’re doing homework. I thought it was critical to grab and hold and sustain attention from beginning to end.

ET: How did you keep up the momentum?

Hurt: My editor’s style is very rhythmic; she uses music very well. A lot of times I would come to watch a certain montage, and say, "I like this, it works." I told her I wanted to see a scene with violence in sports culture, Hollywood culture, and military culture, to make the connection that violence is all over the larger culture. What she showed me was compelling. I just feel like usually, when you hear people criticize hip-hop, they leave out that this is part of American culture. It’s Americana that young black and brown men are living in a culture where manhood is defined by being powerful, violent, and superior. It’s nothing new, but when you fail to acknowledge that, people in the hip-hop generation become defensive and tune you out. They don’t want to hear what you have to say. My goal is to get people to listen to what I have to say.

ET: I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people, usually white people, say things like, "Oh I like all kinds of music, except for rap." Did you struggle with that narrow way of thinking in the film, not wanting to add fuel to the fire for people who too easily (or even unjustly) write hip-hop off?

Hurt: I struggled with that and I still do. I wanted to have nuance. That’s one of the reasons why I start and end the film by saying that I love hip-hop. I think there are brilliant, smart dudes out there but they haven’t been educated about gender issues. That’s the only thing that separates me from them, my awareness of gender issues, which I only began to learn about in my early 20s. I am hoping and waiting for the emergence of broader sense of manhood in hip-hop. I do have concerns about my film being used or co-opted but I know Bill O’Reilly doesn’t love hip-hop the way I do.

ET: The film suggests that for a time hip-hop was moving beyond the stereotypes, both racially and gender-based, but has now slid back into imagery and lyrics that are more marketable, even formulaic. Is this purely related to corporate ownership or is it a reaction to something bigger? Do you see the same thing happening in other genres of music?

Hurt: Corporate control is the major reason American culture is being dumbed down if you want my opinion. American popular culture serves a base audience. It force feeds an audience that doesn’t want to think, that doesn’t want to be challenged. Much of the mainstream hip-hop you hear today is clearly in a cesspool filled with other wide-ranging genres of art. When I was just out of high school, hip-hop was about something different. Old Big Daddy Kane was talking about being an Asiatic black man with knowledge of self. Dropping knowledge: that was the cool thing to do, to be smart, to be conscious.

ET: What is your biggest hope for Beyond Beats and Rhymes?

Hurt: That it will be seen by largest audience possible all over the world. That it makes a difference in the lives of the people who watch it. I want people to use it as a catalyst to create social change in the way they see fit or most effective. I know that sounds really big. But it’s all possible.

Beyond Beats and Rhymes screens at Tufts University as part of the Africana Center annual film series: February 15 at 7:00 pm, Tisch 304. For more information about the film, visit http://www.bhurt.com/.


Beyond Beats and Rhymes screens at Tufts University as part of the Africana Center annual film series: February 15 at 7:00 pm, Tisch 304. For more information about the film, visit http://www.bhurt.com/.