Film takes skeptical look at hip-hop

Documentary investigates moral, social impact of rap music

December 25, 2006|By New York Times News Service

CHICAGO -- Byron Hurt takes pains to say that he is a fan of hip-hop, but over time, says Hurt, a 36-year-old filmmaker, dreadlocks hanging below his shoulders, "I began to become very conflicted about the music I love."

A new documentary by Hurt, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, questions the violence, degradation of women and homophobia in much of rap music.

Scheduled to go on the air in February as part of the PBS series Independent Lens, the documentary is being shown now at high schools, colleges and Boys and Girls Clubs, and in other forums, as part of an unusual public campaign sponsored by the Independent Television Service, which is based in San Francisco and helped finance the film.

The intended audience includes young fans, hip-hop artists and music industry executives - black and white - who profit from music and videos that glorify swagger and luxury, portray women as sex objects, and imply, critics say, that education and hard work are for suckers and sissies.

What concerns Hurt and many black scholars is the domination of the hip-hop market by more violent and sexually demeaning songs and videos - an ascendancy, the critics say, that has coincided with the growth of the white audience for rap and the growing role of large corporations in marketing the music.

With the commercial success of gangsta rap and music videos, which portray men as extravagant thugs and women as sex toys, debate has simmered among black parents, community leaders and scholars about the impact of rap and the surrounding hip-hop culture.

"There's a conversation going on now; a lot more people are trying to figure out a way to intervene that's productive," said Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University.

At one extreme are critics, both black and white, who put primary blame for the failures and isolation of urban black youth on a self-destructive subculture, exemplified by the worst of hip-hop. But many of those critics, Rose said, fail to acknowledge the deeper roots of the problems. At the other extreme are people who reflexively defend any artistic expression by young blacks, saying the focus must remain on the economic and political structures that hem in minorities.

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