Byron Hurt wrote, directed, and produced the documentary film Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs In on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture, a labor of love that took five years to bring to fruition. It aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 2007, earning a slew of positive accolades for its frank, evenhanded exploration of sexism, violence, and anti-gay sentiment in rap and hip-hop music. In interviews to promote the film, Hurt noted that his deep-rooted love of the music, and the fact that he was a black man as well as a former college football player seemed to open doors for him as a filmmaker that would have otherwise been closed. "Whenever somebody outside of hip-hop culture criticizes hip-hop, people within the culture just totally dismiss it because it's seen as an attack," he explained Newsday journalist Rafer Guzman. "This film is not framed as an attack. It's framed from a position of love for the art form, and for the culture."
Hurt grew up in a predominantly black community in Central Islip, on New York's Long Island. Both of his parents worked as health aides at a psychiatric facility. A talented athlete, he went on to play quarterback for the Northeastern University Huskies in Boston. In college, he majored in journalism. He also became involved in a program to raise awareness among high-school and college athletes about violence toward women. Hurt had been a fan of rap and hip-hop music since his teens, but at this point in his life he began to listen more closely to the lyrics, many of which seemed to encourage the same kind of sexist attitudes he was working to eradicate as a mentor.
After graduating from Northeastern in 1993, Hurt stayed in the Boston area and worked for his alma mater's public-relations office. His violence-prevention work had led him to begin challenging some of his friends on their own attitudes, and he was profiled by Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson about this in June of 1994. Jackson's column centered around discussions that Hurt had entered into with his teammates and fellow students over their casual use of a derogatory slang term for women, which had led to his decision to explore these issues further in a documentary-film format. "So many black men wear what I call a hard hat," he told Jackson. "The world has been so hostile to them that all they know is to be hostile back…. Many of them know what honor, love and respect mean, but they are afraid to show it because they have been taught to show those feelings means they would be less of a man and they would be rejected more."
Hurt spent several years making that first documentary. I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America featured interviews with African-American men in more than a dozen cities along with commentary by civil-rights figures and cultural-studies scholars such as bell hooks, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and MC Hammer. The experience, however, put a severe strain on Hurt's personal finances, and he was wary about picking up the camera again afterward.
In 1999, Hurt moved down from Boston to New York City to be closer to the woman who would become his wife. The idea for Beyond Beats and Rhymes came one day as he watched rap videos on cable television. "I noticed that nearly every one 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," he told Sarasota Herald Tribune writer Yvette Kimm. "I began to wonder, how do black men feel about the representations of manhood in hip-hop culture?" Some of the blame lay with the artists, their labels, and the pressure to come up with a hit song, he realized. "I wanted to dig deeper than the stuff you hear when rappers say, ‘Yo, it's hard out there,’" he told Guzman in the Newsday article. "I wanted to hear more than that standard response."
It took Hurt five years to finish Beyond Beats and Rhymes, but the work was lauded when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2006, and he received a pair of standing ovations from audiences at the independent-film industry showcase. Working from a premise that gangster-glorifying messages in rap and hip-hop music sow confusion and doubt about self-image among African-American youth, and work to reinforce negative stereotypes about black life in the media, Hurt interviewed dozens of music-industry figures for his film, among them Chuck D, Jadakiss, Mos Def, and Busta Rhymes. Hurt also interviewed record label mogul Russell Simmons, ordinary teenagers, and emerging rappers.
At Spelman College in Atlanta, Hurt interviewed women students who had organized a campus boycott against a scheduled charity event headlined by Nelly; one of whose songs was featured in the film as an example of blatant sexist imagery in contemporary music. The Spelman women asked Nelly to defend the song at a planned conference, but instead the musician canceled his entire appearance at the college. Hurt—noting that most of the responses he received from those he interviewed defended such lyrics and imagery with assertions that these attitudes merely reflected reality in urban communities in America—viewed Nelly's cancellation as a telling example of the lack of serious examination of such stereotypes in African-American culture. "There's a difference between bringing certain social conditions to light," he told Tenley Woodman in the Boston Herald, "and cashing in on those social issues you have no intentions of addressing."
Beyond Beats and Rhymes was screened in schools and youth clubs across America as part of public-awareness initiative from the Independent Television Service, the San Francisco-based outfit that had financed it. Hurt's documentary was also featured on the Independent Lens series on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 2007. By then Hurt had married his longtime girlfriend, Kenya Crumel, an executive with a Newark management, technology and policy consultancy firm. Their 2006 wedding was held at their Plainfield, New Jersey, home and had been delayed in part by Hurt's involvement with Beyond Beats and Rhymes. "I asked her to be patient while I was working on the film," Hurt told the New York Times. "I thought it would take me one or two years."
Hurt hoped that Beyond Beats and Rhymes would ignite a wider discussion about such negative images in contemporary urban music. While conceding that record sales were equally healthy among white teens, rap and hip-hop "influences black kids the most," he told New York Times journalist Erik Eckholm. "They're the ones who order their days around it, who try to conform to the script." In the interview with Kimm for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, he asserted that "how we see manhood has to be redefined in the future, because if it remains the same, then we are going to continue to have high rates of homicides, murder-suicides, men's violence against women, acts of homophobia, violence against gays and lesbians, and just overall high mortality rates."
At a Glance …
Born Byron Patrick Hurt in 1970; son of Jackie (a health aide) and Frances (a health aide) Hurt; married Kenya Felice Crumel (a consulting company executive), 2006. Education: Northeastern University, AS, journalism, 1993.
Center for the Study of Sport in Society, Northeastern University, Boston, Mentors in Violence Prevention staff, 1993; Mentors in Violence Prevention-Marine Corps, associate director, 1996; God Bless the Child Productions, Inc. (a documentary film production company), founder, 1993-; Northeastern University, media relations specialist, 1999; documentarian, 1990s-.
International Prized Pieces Community Choice Award, for I Am a Man.
Office-God Bless the Child Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 5463, Plainfield, NJ 07061. Home-Plainfield, NJ. Web-www.bhurt.com.
I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America (documentary film), 2002.
Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs In on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture (documentary film), 2006.
Boston Herald, February 18, 2007, p. 29.
Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2007.
Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), February 20, 2007.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 13, 1994.
Newsday (Melville, NY), February 20, 2007.
New York Times, October 1, 2006; December 24, 2006.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 2, 2006, p. BM4.
"First Person: Byron Hurt," Northeastern University, www.neu.edu/numag/0301/first.html (May 4, 2007).
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