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  Director/Producer Byron Hurt talks about audience reactions to HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, independent filmmaking and what ended up on the cutting room floor.
 

Byron Hurt, wearing a brown blazer and jeans, sitting and looking to the side

My big goal was to get audiences to watch hip-hop videos with a different lens and listen to hip-hop lyrics with a different ear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An image from a music video of a muscular, shirtless black man wearing a red hat and standing in front of a waterfall

LL Cool J in his "Paradise" video

I think the subject of manhood is a very intriguing subject for a lot of guys to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three black men, wearing caps and doorags and talking to the camera

Aspiring rappers at BET’s annual Spring Bling

When I started making this film, I knew I had a female audience. That was without question. The big question was, how do I get men to listen without getting defensive? That was the trick.

What led you to make HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes?

My experiences working with boys and men around gender issues from 1993 to 2000 is what initially led me to the idea of making a film about the representations of gender in hip-hop. Finally, sometime in 2000, I was sitting at home, watching hip-hop music videos when I realized how formulaic the visual representation of manhood in hip-hop had become. I was also concerned about the increasing levels of sexual objectification of women in hip-hop music videos. So I pulled out a piece of paper, grabbed a pen and started writing the proposal.

What impact do you hope the film will have?

I hope it will get hip-hop fans to question and challenge some of the hyperviolent, hypersexualized and homophobic lyrics that that have become so normalized in mainstream hip-hop culture. I also hope the film inspires young people to take action and organize their peers in positive ways to change some of the imagery in hip-hop, and to challenge the industry that creates some of the more problematic imagery.

What are some of the concerns you have regarding the film?

The film deals with really complicated and sensitive issues surrounding race, class and gender. Because the film deconstructs violence, misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop, which is a deeply black and Latino art form, I am concerned that white audiences will think that these issues are simply "black" problems. I think the film presents a really good opportunity to get groups across race, class and gender to talk honestly about how violence, misogyny, homophobia, corporate culture and race pervades American culture.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes?

Getting so much information into a 60-minute film. That was tough. Also, placing hip-hop’s masculinity in a larger social context, that is, making sure I looked at things outside of hip-hop, things that also influence the way we as men are trained to be men. And then there’s the editing process. The editing process was a major challenge — editing 250 hours worth of footage down to 60 minutes (52:30 for the PBS version). That was also a very difficult phase of the process. Also, during post-production, my father was diagnosed with cancer, which devastated me. So there were lots of challenges, both personally and professionally.

How did you gain the trust of the people you interviewed in the film—big-name rappers such as Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, for instance—and get them to open up on camera? What were some of the obstacles you encountered while interviewing your subjects?

I had no big secret weapon when I walked into the room with Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes. I just walked into the room and gave them respect from jump. I spoke to them man to man. I think the subject of manhood is a very intriguing subject for a lot of guys to talk about. It’s something that I think we men think a lot about internally, but never talk about how we are conditioned out loud to anyone, so when I ask the question, “Why is it so important for a male rapper to prove that he is hard or tough?” or “How does one’s ’hood’, borough or city or state define one’s masculine credibility?”—they find it interesting to talk about. The other thing that helped me, I think, is that these are guys that I grew up with. These are guys that I know. Not literally, but figuratively. These black guys that are hip-hop celebrities are very familiar to me, because we grew up in the same generation, and we were brought up a certain way. So that, I think, led to a natural rapport.

What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to have included?

I wish that I could have included more positive examples of masculinity in hip-hop. Also, there was a conversation about Eminem’s masculinity that hit the cutting room floor. And we also had this great footage and interviews with Toni Blackman, which we had to cut. I was disappointed those three things didn’t make it into the film.

What did you want to achieve with your film?

Well, I am still achieving what I hoped to achieve, and that is a national conversation focused specifically on masculinity in hip-hop. How it gets represented, what it reveals, its impact. This film has gotten audiences across race, class, gender and age, I might add, to talk about some pretty complicated issues regarding gender. Everywhere I go to show the film, audiences raise really good questions, debate, give testimonials, provide social commentary that adds to the film, so it’s been great so far. My big goal was to get audiences to watch hip-hop videos with a different lens and listen to hip-hop lyrics with a different ear. I think the film is doing much more than that, though.

What has the audience response been so far?

It’s been incredible. The film has been getting standing ovations all across the country. And I’m talking across race, which is really interesting to me. And the really crazy thing to me is that each demographic that watches the film reacts differently, but in very important and positive ways. I mean, I think it is a difficult thing to keep an audience engaged for a full 60 minutes, and this film is doing that.

What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of framing a documentary through a personal point of view?

I think the advantage is that you get to speak your mind. You get to write a huge personal essay on screen. You get to frame the discussion, and then go out and find the people to talk about the issues that are important to you. You also get to go out and prove or disprove your ideas, which is interesting. And you also grow through the film project. At least I did. On the other hand, you are really putting yourself out there in a way that can be picked apart and scrutinized. You have to reach deep down and pull some things out that you weren’t prepared to share, or reveal. Personal documentaries are really tough, and I swear, halfway through the process I swore I would never do it again.

Why do you think issues of masculinity, misogyny, homophobia and violence in hip-hop have been so rarely addressed? What do you think needs to change in order for more dialogue on these subjects to take place?

Because men rule the world and men don’t want to talk about masculinity. Men don’t want to talk about sexism. Men don’t want to talk about homophobia, and men don’t want to talk about why we are so violent. Most men, that is. And I didn’t either until I was shown why it was in my best interest to do so. But, I think more men are starting to question our socialization process, and are rejecting the script. When I first started doing gender violence prevention work, I didn’t know any men who addressed sexism and masculine identity, other than Jackson Katz. Now, I know more than 30 men across the United States who are saying the same things that I am saying about masculinity. So I do see things changing, and I am glad to be a part of the transformation. I think more men who have been silent about sexism and men’s violence against women and homophobia need to be more vocal, and I think more men have to be willing to listen. When I started making this film, I knew I had a female audience. That was without question. The big question was, how do I get men to listen without getting defensive? That was the trick.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

My passion and my faith keep me motivated. I love what I do. I love making documentaries. I love planning the whole process out. I love drafting interview questions. I love logging tape. I love being out in the field. I just love being a documentary filmmaker. Filmmaking is a difficult business, but I have been very, very fortunate to receive great mentorship and financial support. A lot of independent filmmakers don’t get that kind of support. So I understand from where my blessings come. I just pray that I can keep on doing it! Independent filmmakers would die to be in the position that I am in right now. I am well aware of that fact.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I chose public television because I knew that PTV was the only media outlet that would have the guts to support this film. No one else in corporate media is courageous enough to support a film like HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.

What are your three favorite films?

Color Adjustment by Marlon Riggs, because of its impact on me as a college student.
Fahrenheit 911 by Michael Moore, because it was so courageous and anti-war.
Eyes on the Prize by Henry Hampton, because it captures the Civil Rights Movement in such a powerful and riveting way.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Sleep.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?

I think I would be a college professor.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Commit your ideas to paper. Be in it for the long haul. Be and stay determined. Honor your voice.

What sparks your creativity?

Being black and socially aware in America sparks my creativity. Also, listening to good music, great hip-hop, and personal disappointment.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Bananas, because you have to be a little bananas to make documentary films!

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