The Byron Hurt documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes explores themes of masculinity and social messages in hip-hop and rap music, interviewing many prominent rappers in the industry and breaking down the messages and cultural standards that rap culture brings to men (black men in particular). Hurt’s messages involve recognizing the sexism, homophobia and stereotypical aggression inherent to today’s rap culture, and the barriers that prevent more socially conscious messages from coming through. Examining these types of issues is important, due to media’s astounding influence on our behavior; recognizing the bad things men do in the name of masculinity and celebrity, based on hip-hop and rap music, helps to allow us greater control over those influences.
Hurt’s primary discussion is in the relationship between rap music and masculinity. In rap culture, it is important for men to be masculine; this culture glorifies things that are stereotypically considered tough, like being a gangster, shooting people, being a womanizer, having money etc. All of these messages are sent in rap music videos and songs, where rappers throw money at the camera and young girls dance in bikinis (with the implication that they are sexually active with that rapper). Manhood is emphasized in rap culture as being closely associated with physical violence, as many rap lyrics involve striking fear into other men in order to make them weaker, usually through the threat of gun violence against them. This is presented as the ideal in rap culture; you have to be on top by showing everyone else that you are willing to kill them. This is what being a man is within hip-hop culture and communities: you cannot ever be afraid, or vulnerable – you have to be indestructible and “hard.” The preoccupation with violence and gunplay is tied back to cultural ideas of violent masculinity, where men are supposed to defend themselves and prove their superiority to other men. To that end, homosexuality is outright rejected and ridiculed, as being gay is seen as being weak or feminized, which is the opposite of the concept of manhood furthered by hip-hop culture.
The concept of black animosity is also explored through hip-hop music in the documentary, through the music of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., as black identity in the Reagan-Bush years started to increasingly become focused around prison life. This led to the increased animosity that often occurs between black men in order to show that they are more masculine and tough than the others; rap then became about these rappers asserting their dominance over others (which disenfranchised blacks could not achieve through economic or other means). This is also reflected in the hypermasculinity of American culture as a whole, where gun culture and violence is also directly connected with dominance and conquest. These ideas help to define manhood for the black community to the point where it becomes the only way they can assert any control over their lives.
Many aspects of hip hop culture are explored in the documentary through the efforts and influence of specific rappers. In one segment, students at Spelman College hold a protest against rapper Nelly, whose bone marrow drive was cancelled after it was requested that they hold a forum to discuss one of his more misogynistic music videos. This is presented as cowardice to some extent, as benevolent actions and helping those in need were co-opted in order to prevent a discussion of sexism in his music and the hip-hop industry. Further on, an interview with Busta Rhymes ends with him walking out when being forced to answer questions about the hip hop community’s tendency toward homophobia. These encounters and interviews present a unique picture of the hip hop community as being ill-equipped or unwilling to discuss the effects that their culture has had on the way they treat women and homosexuals, as well as how black men treat each other.
In conclusion, these discussions and examinations of pop culture are absolutely vital due to their role in socializing young people and entire communities in America. The focus on gun violence and power through control, as well as hypermasculinity to the exclusion of all sense of vulnerability, are all very dangerous things, as the rape and murder statistics given in Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes show us. The unwillingness for the hip hop community to address these issues shows just how ingrained these notions are in those circles and American culture as a whole; for them, being ‘hard,’ treating women like ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’, and looking down on any man who might be homosexual or less prone to aggression is a fact of life, and one way they can overcome cultural and identity-related insecurities. Hurt’s documentary does a tremendous job of exploring these issues and how they relate to the hip-hop culture in America, and its effects on the black community.
Hurt, Byron (dir.). Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. PBS Independent Lens. 2007. Film.