Criticizing Rap With Love, Thanking Britney Spears and Deggans by Podcast
--- anti-gender violence activist Jackson Katz.
In other words, how do you challenge artists and fans to overcome the culture of violence, misogyny and homophobia rampant in popular rap without losing its creative soul?
That's a question which has vexed critics and fans since gangsta rap became the gold standard of the industry nearly 15 years ago. Now filmmaker Byron Hurt has stepped up with a "loving critique" of rap that shoulders aside the stereotypes AND the rationalizations -- the powerful Sundance documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.
“I’ve learned to not support the music that troubles me," said Hurt. "To listen to the music more critically, you know what I’m sayin’? it was more important to reveal what others were overlooking...There is a lot of artistic greatness in rap. The fact that it is so linked to criminality and misogyny and materialism – it has diminished the art form. I think that’s a problem. It doesn’t really have to be that way. There’s enough talent where the music could be its major selling point. The music is what overwhelms everyone else.”
I've got a way cool story running in Floridian tomorrow in which I convened a panel of local hip hop experts to discuss the themes raised by Hurt's documentary,which airs at 11 p.m. tomorrow night on WEDU as part of PBS' Independent Lens series. To whet your whistle a bit, I present a Q&A with Hurt that couldn't fit in the actual story.
ME: When I was a music critic in New Jersey years ago, right-wing radio personality Curtis Sliwa responded to a critical column I wrote about gangsta rap by asking me onto his radio show to try sliming the entire genre. How do you target the questionable stuff in rap without becoming a tool for those who don't respect the music at all?
Hurt: “What you’re feeling, what I’m feeling, what Chris Rock is feeling -- a lot of people are feeling. You’re not the first person to say 'I listen to hip hop, but I’m torn by the negative messages.' People say this film says everything I’ve been saying to my friends. Educators are saying this is everything I try to talk to my students about in one hour. The executives and artists, they’ve been very good at silencing the critics... I know that pieces like mine have the potential to be co-opted by people who are being critical, but being critical for very different reasons The feedback I’ve been getting from my closest advisors, they’ve said you do a good job of contextualizing hip hop within the confines of a larger culture. I can’t control what people do in the universe. I know why I made the film and to whom the film is directed to."
What's the biggest criticisms you've heard so far?
“I think that there are still some men who deflect the issues. They don’t want to take an honest examination of manhood. They want to bring up questions of the women who appear in these videos. Some people do say that I needed to show more positive examples of hip hop or talk about the good things that rappers do...but that’s not what the film is about. No artists reacted negatively. Chuck D has embraced it. Everbody who has seen it embraced it.”
Why do you think these themes persist?
“They knew – they were making clear decision. A lot of people say conscious rap doesn’t sell. They were clear on that, so that’s the huge subtext, Even Fat Joe’s new album -– I like Fat Joe as a person. His most recent CD, its real hardcore -– it’s a gansta CD. Fat Joe is so much smarter and so much more sophisticaed and so much more socially conscious than any album he has every dropped...I know that there’s a whole lot more that these rappers have to offer. They know what will get them record deals and what won’t get them record deals. It’s not that they’re not presenting some truth from their lives.”
When does the audience become part of the problem?
“The moment they realize it’s a problem, but they continue to buy it. They’re not challenging it – not walking away. I was an audience member. I’m not in the music industry. I was a rap fan who decided to make this film. For me, it was my form of taking action. And I considered it my way of giving to the art form. Thirty years from now, what will I have added to the culture? I grew up listening to hip hop, I read the source and XXL – I was on the pulse of things, but I did do a lot of research and reading, just to...understand how corporate culture and corporate media colludes to disseminate this music that is amoral.”
It feels to me sometimes like the moment when a young man takes his time crossing the street, finding power in making you wait a bit..there's a power in intimidating people, especially when that's the only power you have.
“The image of black and latino men doing these things are more consumable because it’s a stereotype, and it plays into the idea of what these men are like – it feeds these fantasies about a hypersexual black man. It acts as a stand in for white males, who might fantasize about being in that body. I listened to a freestyle on Hot 97 with 50 Cent and G-Unit. Every single one of their freestyles it was everything the black has historically been known for – dangerous, wild, violent hypersexual – all of those things. It feel powerful to thump your chest and sya I can do this to you, can do that to you. But how is it really working – how is it really operating in a real way. Is this, challenging the status quo or reinforcing it?
Turns out VH1's most-watched series features two guys from Tampa -- or it did, until Sandro "Rico" Pena was shown getting kicked off the anti-Bachlorette series I Love New York last week. Internet rumors say Tampa rapper Patrick "Tango" Hunter wins it all, based on the fact that series star threw up a "T" hand signal during a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. I did a piece Saturday on Tango's newfound fame and the way the show seems to regurgitate stereotypes of black people for mass consumption.
-- Turns out, CNN has video podcasts of its shows available, so you don't have to just read my words of wisdom on the transcripts anymore. You can check out the way cool suit my mom bought me for Christmas yourself, anytime.
-- BRITNEY SHEARS (thanks Colette!) -- Thanks to Britney for damping down the expected flood of Anna Nicole stories today by freaking out and taking some shears to her too-famous mane. Given that she had this meltdown in such a public way, Spears' journey into Sinead O'Connor-land feels like a toddler's temper tantrum, enabled by a coterie of handlers and hangers-on who can't make the self-destructive pop star fill the void inside herself with something positive or convince her to live for her children.
And can someone explain to me why she's walking around with a wig on days after cutting all her hair off in the first place?