Beyond Beats and Rhymes


Went to Soul Summit at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn last night. After the DJs stopped spinning afrobeat, the sweaty crowd sojourned over to the Myrtle Ave side of the park where a giant screen was tacked into the grass. Rooftop Films was showing "Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Rap Music," a 2006 Sundance Film Festival selection by writer/director Byron Hurt (pictured above).

I felt kind of like I did that first night Waiting to Exhale came out, sitting in a crowded Albany theatre full of signifying black women as Angela Bassett's character threw her ex-husband's clothes in his car and torched it. Like the folks in the park, they were laughing, clapping, sucking their teeth, giving each other the pound, and speaking their approval to the screen.

The documentary held a magnifying glass up to manhood, sexism and homophobia in hip hop culture, particularly post-Golden Age, featuring interviews with Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Chuck D, Kevin Powell, Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Sarah Jones, Tim'm West, Russell Simmons, and many others. It discussed hypermasculinity and misogyny, the use of guns/violence as a symbol for manhood, martyrs (Biggie and Tupac), homoeroticism, accountability, and the white power base that owns/promotes/patronizes this brand of hip hop.

To me, the film stated the obvious -- that a medium owned, produced, and promoted by a hyperviolent, hypermasculine, homophobic, sexist power base will only reflect as much. But what wasn't so obvious was the complete lack of ownership and accountability on the part of the artists, who had an intimate understanding of the power dynamics.

Jadakiss hit the nail on the head when he said, "After 700,000 records you sellin to white people...but I'm just tryna feed my daughter." Surely after a million you can shift your sights to higher pursuits than making a buck? I wonder what happens when the beat stops and we're left with the consequences of our actions, how do we reconcile them?

It was a brave and revealing effort by Hurt, whom I met after the showing. He was a non-threatening black man, softspoken, dreadlocks in a ponytail hanging down his back, crisscrossed by a satchel bag. His story was fascinating to me -- a former quarterback turned anti-sexist activist after college, lecturing young men, developing an internal conflict with the music he loved, which lead to a five-year-long documentary process.

I told him that I'd gone to school with Tim'm and that Dr. Cobb was a former professor of mine. I reluctantly said that I was starting NYU film school soon and he said that he applied, but didn't get in. I thought to myself, When you've got a film and a message, you don't need a school.

As for me, still waiting for mine. That labor of love that I dedicate a portion of my life to building. I must admit that I'd want to be a Spike Lee, prolific, popping out films like Pez. Check out Spike's Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke," playing on HBO tonight. Parts I and II are showing tonight, and III and IV tomorrow. The film will be shown in its entirety on Tuesday, August 29th, Katrina's one year anniversary.

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