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A lover of rap scrutinizes 'the masculinity of hip-hop'

Filmmaker screens Sundance selection

Byron Hurt is perturbed by how people have become desensitized to what he considers the lewdness of hip-hop. And with his documentary film, he's hoping to reveal this face of rap to people.

Hurt, a gender violence educator and self-proclaimed hip-hop junkie, brought the issues of violence, sexism and homophobia of rap to Salomon 101 on Thursday night. He showed his documentary, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," to a small but enthusiastic crowd and held a question-and-answer session afterward.

The documentary's central theme is deconstructing "the masculinity of hip-hop," Hurt said after the screening. The documentary attempts to answer the questions of why rappers are so protective of their masculinity, why all women are so objectified and why American culture is so accepting of this.

The documentary explicitly states that these problems were not created by hip-hop. Instead, they go far back in American culture - all the way back to outlaw Jesse James and the Wild West. Violence, sexism and homophobia are present in mainstream Hollywood movies from "The Terminator" to "Scarface." Hip-hop is merely a manifestation of this Amerian culture, the documentary points out.

Hurt goes straight to the source of the music, interviewing some of hip-hop's biggest names, including Chuck D, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, as well as music mogul Russell Simmons. He asks them questions about their roles in perpetuating stereotypes of hip-hop that, at times, the rappers and producers are reluctant to answer.

In his film, Hurt asserts that hip-hop has not always been this way. The movie describes how the narrowing of hip-hop's scope corresponds to its commercialization and takeover by major record labels. The documentary's take is that record labels want to project only the violent, sexist and homophobic aspects of hip-hop.

At one point, Hurt interviews several aspiring rappers and asks them why they rap about violence. They respond that violence is what gets an artist signed; music executives do not want nice music, the rappers say. "Media and corporations define hip-hop," Hurt says in the film.

The central metaphor of the film is that masculinity is a box. Power, money and girls are in the box. Inside is for the "pimps" - for those who have power - while the outside is for the weak. Hurt argues that hip-hop is trapped in this "box mentality" almost as a form of protection.

In "Hip-Hop," Hurt says that he was inspired to make the documentary when he turned on the TV one day and realized that all rap videos are the same: They all involve scantily clad women and men wearing bling and throwing money at the camera. He then decided to make a film examining why these themes are omnipresent in hip-hop culture.

The documentary is not a straight criticism of hip-hop. Hurt starts the documentary by saying that he grew up on hip-hop and confesses that he sometimes feels bad criticizing it. But he adds that men "need to take a good, hard look at ourselves" and see what they are perpetuating with such music.

In the question-and-answer session, Hurt said there was much less backlash in the music industry than he was expecting. He prepared himself for rappers cursing him out in songs, but nothing happened. He said that he thought that music moguls who were not portrayed well in the film dropped the matter because they didn't want to bring more media attention upon themselves.

The documentary was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. It is also being shown to high schools across the country to educate people about hip-hop, Hurt said after the film's screening.

The 70 or so people in the audience were enthusiastic throughout the film, giving it a loud ovation afterward. During the question-and-answer session, several people said that the movie changed their perspectives on hip-hop.


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