Saturday, May 06, 2006

Hot Docs: Part Deux

Beyond Beats: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs In on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture

This just in: Hip-hop often features violence, misogyny and homophobia.

What saves Beyond Beats from being a headline from 1988 is that it wasn't made by your standard news show featuring a white, middle-aged man who is shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, to discover offensive lyrics in "the rap music." Instead, it's an introspective and sobering film made by an African American male who unabashedly loves hip-hop.

Byron Hurt, an ex-college football star, reporter and filmmaker, put this documentary together over more than two years. It grew out of his work as a violence-prevention counsellor; he's worked with groups of men ranging from college students to U.S. Marines on violence against women. A self-admitted hard-partier and hip-hop fan, Hurt at first didn't notice the content of the lyrics he was dancing to. A dawning realization of the troubling aspects of hip-hop culture led him to make this film, which is both fascinating and disappointing at the same time.

Beyond Beats breaks down the problems with hip-hop into four key areas: violence, the objectification of women, homophobia and the feminization of other men (which is sort of the previous two issues combined). He interviews many experts, from hip-hop scholars to activists to rappers like Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def and Chuck D. Conspicuously absent, of course, are the heavy-hitters whose multi-platinum successes keep these issues front and centre: 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Snoop, The Game, Dr. Dre, etc.

The issue of violence is dealt with first and unsurprisingly gets the most eloquent responses out of the interviewees. The familiar argument that rappers are simply portraying in song what their lives are really like is trotted out almost immediately, but Hurt puts this argument in perspective with a history of the Bronx - hip-hop's birthplace - and the borough's destruction and abandonment by the white power structure that ran and still runs New York. He also gets some of the artists to admit that much of their posing is just that, that inside their heavily-guarded, gated, wealthy compounds they don't have as much reason to fear dying in a hail of bullets as they make out. Hurt returns to the issue of violence later in the film while interviewing a bunch of aspiring rappers outside a hip-hop convention in New York. After listening to several of them sound off about killing and shooting, he asks why so many of them are preoccupied with death. Their answer is telling, and brings another layer to the debate: thug culture is the only part of hip-hop that the record companies are interested in selling. If you watch only BET and whatever MTV channel still shows music videos, the only rappers getting any play are "thugs" and "pimps."

Chuck D, predictably, is the most eloquent of the artists interviewed and he has lots to say about the corporatization of music and how the rappers are merely going where they're told to go by the white men signing the cheques. All of which is true, but it's an argument Chuck's been making for a while now. I was disappointed that when Hurt moved on to misogyny in rap that Chuck D didn't weigh in on the subject, and I'd really like to know if that's because they didn't discuss it, or if they did and that segment was cut. As one of the female academics interviewed said - and I'm paraphrasing - black culture in general has shown itself to be more concerned with the oppression of black men by whites than with the oppression of black women by anyone, and it's a subject on which I don't hear Chuck D expound often enough, if ever. (It's the same problem I have with his pal Spike Lee; Lee's always ready to show yet again how black men are kept down, but he doesn't seem to care much about black women, or women of any colour, really.) Obviously, as a woman who doesn't suffer much in the way of drive-by shootings, I'm biased in favour of wanting to hear more about this subject, but it's disheartening that Hurt couldn't find one artist willing to talk about the depiction of women in hip-hop.

Even more disheartening, though, was the segment on homophobia. Many of the outside experts Hurt interviewed had lots to say about it, including pointing out the obvious homoeroticism of the ubiquitous shots of shirtless, six-packed rhymers and lyrics that seem to care more about members of the posse getting off than the women they're getting off with. But none of the mainstream artists Hurt interviewed would talk about it. Busta Rhymes got up and left the room when Hurt raised the issue. That sucks. There's no two ways about it, it sucks. It sucks that artists, who should be the most open-minded of anyone in any society, can't even discuss something that may be personally distasteful to them but is undeniably a part of humanity. This distaste isn't limited to hip-hop, obviously; getting a bunch of good ol' boys in Stetsons to talk about gay cowboys would be a near-impossible task, as this year's Oscars prove. Rock gods, too, are supposed to be surrounded by women and patently showing off their virility; the only area of pop music where homosexuality is really embraced is the dance scene. But to get up and leave the room rather than talk about something? Sucks.

The refusal of hip-hop moguls to take any responsibility for the music they put out is annoying, too; Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam, and Bob Johnson, until recently, the head of BET, pass the buck when Hurt asks them about the message they're helping to disseminate. Hurt doesn't interview any of the white guys in suits who get blamed for nearly everything that's wrong with hip-hop, which is fitting, because the whole premise of his movie is that it's time for the artists to take responsibility for what they produce.

That being the case, it's too bad that he wasn't able to land anyone who could prove that it's not necessary to thug out in order to be successful. He does talk to De La Soul, the bohemian, socially-conscious group that hit big in the early 90s, but where are the Fugees? Where is Michael Franti, or the former members of A Tribe Called Quest, or KRS-One or the Roots? This being a film about black culture, it's understandable that Hurt wouldn't talk to the Beastie Boys, but what about OutKast, whose music may be sexist but is definitely not misogynist, or the Black-Eyed Peas, who were well known as conscious rappers before they sold out, signed Fergie and became dance club fixtures?

What, for that matter, about talking to female rappers? Where are Missy Elliott or Queen Latifah, two women who have bucked the image of women in rap and gone on to hugely successful careers? Where is Lauryn Hill, who took on all these issues on her solo album? What about Lil' Kim, whose public image is at least as skanky as that of Nelly's back-up dancers, who dated one of the best-known thugs of them all and is now in prison?

Hurt's eagerness to take on this subject at all is encouraging. If more fans of any type of music were this introspective about the artists they love and what that says about them as people, Talib Kweli might be a bigger star than Eminem. Or maybe not. But I didn't leave the theatre feeling like anything in hip-hop, from the suits in the board rooms to the wannabes in the streets, is likely to change soon.


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