About five years ago,
in 2000, I was watching the rap music video countdown
on BET’s Rap City—one of my favorite pastimes—when
I noticed that nearly every video appeared to be the
same. They all featured guys throwing money at the camera,
dudes in fancy cars showing off their “iced-out”
jewelry and, of course, lots of barely dressed, sexually
available women as background props.
As I saw how formulaic rap music videos had become—with
their limited and narrow representations of manhood—I
began to wonder, how do black men feel about the representations
of manhood in hip-hop culture? How do black women and
men feel about the pervasive images of scantily clad
and sexually objectified women in rap music and videos?
How do black males truly feel about the way women and
violence are talked about in rap music? What do today’s
rap lyrics tell us about the collective consciousness
of black men and women from the hip-hop generation?
What does homoeroticism in hip-hop media look like?
I decided to pick up the camera to make a film about
the gender politics of the music and the culture that
I grew up with and loved: hip-hop.
I have not always paid such close attention to gender
politics. But after I graduated from Northeastern University
in 1993, the university’s Center for the Study
of Sport in Society hired me—a former Northeastern
quarterback—to help create a program to educate
young men about gender and sexual violence called the
Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program. At that
point, I knew next to nothing about these issues, so
I read and learned as much as I could about rape, sexual
assault, battering and sexual harassment. I reflected
on how these issues affected my own life and thought
deeply about how, as a male, I had been socialized.
In 1993, I nervously addressed my first group of men,
a college basketball team. With every workshop, I grew
more confident and passionate about ending men’s
violence against women. Looking back, my involvement
with the MVP program for more than ten years was a turning
point in my life.
I wanted to share what I had learned about gender with
other black males in my community, so in 1994, I produced
and directed the documentary I Am A Man: Black Masculinity
in America, a film that examined black masculine identity
in American culture. But hip-hop had not yet become
the pop culture success it is today, and I Am A Man did not address its impact on the masculine identity
of young black and Latino men from the hip-hop generation.
HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is my attempt
to pick up where I Am A Man left off and start a discourse
on hip-hop and its declarations on gender. In the past
five years, I have gathered thoughtful, divergent voices
discussing this topic, including celebrity rap artists,
industry executives, rap fans and social critics from
inside and outside the hip-hop generation. I look forward
to continuing this dialogue and the future participation
of audiences who watch this film. —Byron
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