Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes
Written and Directed by Byron Hurt
Media Education Foundation, 2006
60 mins, DVD
The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook Volume 1: A Sourcebook of Inspiration and Practical Application
Edited by Marcella Runell and Martha Diaz, with Tatiana Forero Puerta
Hip-Hop Association/Lulu.com, 2007
People talk about Hip-Hop like
it’s some giant livin’ in the hillside
comin’ down to visit the townspeople.
We Hip-Hop. Me, you, everybody,
we are Hip-Hop.
So Hip-Hop is goin’ where we goin’.
So the next time you ask yourself
where Hip-Hop is goin’,
ask yourself, where am I goin’?
How am I doin’?
—Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man,”
from the album Black on Both Sides,
Def Jam, 1999
As someone who grew up identifying with and embracing hip-hop music and culture, I’ve always experienced some amount of tension between being a hip-hop head and at least two other parts of my identity: that of being a man interested in fighting sexism, and that of being a teacher.
In terms of being an anti-sexist male, I think I embodied this tension most when I was still in high school in the late ’80s. Hip-hop was still in its fledgling stages and was struggling through the pleasures and pains of adolescence, just as I was. So even though I kept the politically conscious Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions on steady rotation in my Walkman, the newly born gangsta rap of N.W.A. and the escapades of Too $hort admittedly entered my headphones from time to time.
These days I have no tolerance for wack beats, wack lyrics, or wack politics, so I am critical and choosey about the rap music that I consume, particularly if it is misogynistic or homophobic. But despite my choice to boycott artists that promote sexism and hatred of gays and lesbians, sexism and misogyny still run long and deep in hip-hop, which is why I found the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, by Byron Hurt, so moving.
Hurt, an African-American journalist, hip-hop head, and domestic violence educator, set out to make his documentary for a simple reason, one that hits home for me. As he comments, “I longed for a broader vision of manhood in the music that I grew up with, the music that I loved.” And it is through honest, loving, and introspective longing that Hurt takes up his exploration of masculinity in hip-hop music and culture by interviewing a wide array of hip-hop related individuals, from music artists, to scholars, to activists, to network executives, to industry moguls, to people on the street.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hip-Hop is Hurt’s framing of the relationship between misogyny and hip-hop. Hurt argues that we cannot separate hip-hop from mainstream U.S. culture, a culture that has long relied on the theme of “real” men using violence to protect their families and communities as witnessed through U.S. colonial expansion historically, male posturing and war mongering in U.S. politics, and the mass marketing of male violence in the media.
“America is a very hypermasculine, hyperaggressive nation. So it stands to reason that a rapper like 50 Cent can be commercially viable in a nation that supports a culture of violence,” Hurt comments in a voiceover juxtaposed against a montage of pop-culture images and news footage.
Hip-Hop also addresses misogyny in hip-hop culture within the context of institutionalized racism in the U.S. The documentary talks about how black men often feel the need to maintain a hypermasculine “psychic armor” in their day-to-day lives as a way of resisting racism, and how major record labels selectively market particular forms of black masculinity to be consumed by an audience that is roughly 70 percent white.
Despite these explanations, Hip-Hop does not let the music and culture off of the misogynist hook. The documentary also discusses how such marketed versions of black masculinity promoted in hip-hop are predatory to women generally and black women specifically. To illustrate this point, Hurt provides an example from Black Entertainment Television’s Spring Bling in Daytona, where he interviews groups of black men roaming the streets verbally harassing and groping women at will, with no repercussions from the predominantly white police force posted around the city. Hurt ends this segment of the documentary powerfully with statistics regarding the high incidence of rape and violence committed against women (more than 700,000 women in the U.S. are sexually assaulted each year) and black women in particular (1 in 4 black women are raped by the age of 18).
Recently, rap mogul Russell Simmons called for music industry executives to “voluntarily show respect to African Americans and other people of color, African-American women and to all women in lyrics and images” by bleeping or deleting offensive words from the music they record. Simmons’s posture has changed. In Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hurt asks Simmons what he could do to support more positive images of women in hip-hop and Simmons handles the question woefully. Even though his new stance comes on the heels of the outrage over shock jock Don Imus’s comments, one has to wonder if Simmons might have seen Hip-Hop and reconsidered his position.
Finally, Hip-Hop addresses homophobia through interviews with cross-dressing hip-hop heads as well as an openly gay, black male rapper. In addition to raising the unrecognized yet widely accepted homoeroticism in hip-hop culture (e.g., nearly naked, barrel-chested rap artists gracing the cover of many mainstream music magazines), the question of homophobia is posed to a group of rap artists, including Busta Rhymes. Of particular note is Busta’s inability to have any conversation about homosexuality, as his hatred of gayness is so strong. It is a powerful sequence because it raises the critical issue of how black masculinity in hip-hop is defined in ways that are deeply homophobic.
Hip-Hop is perfect for the classroom. It is well paced, emotional, honest, current, and engaging. In addition to providing insightful social and cultural analysis, Hurt asks himself and his interview subjects whether or not such views of women, homosexuality, sexism, and masculinity in hip-hop are defensible. This is the very question students should also be asking themselves. I cannot say enough good things about Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. We all should be using it in our secondary-level classrooms.
Hip-Hop in the Classroom
I do know, however, that using hip-hop materials such as Hurt’s documentary in our classrooms does not always come easy. When I became a high school teacher, I found a tension between being a hip-hop head and what I thought was expected of me as a teacher. During that time I struggled to find a way for me to be hip-hop in the classroom.
Fortunately, times have changed since I entered the classroom in 1996. More and more of the hip-hop generation have become classroom teachers, scholars, academics, community acti-vists, and journalists. We are seeping into the crevices of institutions, carving out spaces to bring hip-hop sensibilities to bear on our visions of social and educational transformation. It is for this reason that I welcome the publication of The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook, Volume 1: A Sourcebook for Inspiration and Practical Application.
This guidebook, edited by educators Marcella Runell and Martha Diaz, with assistance from Tatiana Forero Puerta, and published by the Hip-Hop Association (www.hiphopassociation.org), compiles hip-hop based lesson plans from teachers around the country. As the editors explain, hip-hop education is:
…a layered approach founded on social justice education, embedded in hip-hop culture, relying on critical pedagogy and community activism to teach hip-hop as subject, hip-hop as pedagogy to teach another subject, and/or hip-hop as the…bridge to draw students into the class.
The lesson plans included here all grow from this collective vision of hip-hop education, and provide teachers a way to carry such a vision into their classroom practice.
For instance, in the lesson “Who Runs the Streets in Your Neighborhood?” author, poet, and teacher Mark Gonzales uses the Declaration of Independence, the writings of Frederick Douglass, the video and lyrics for the rapper Eminem’s song “Mosh,” the Malcolm X speech “Ballot or the Bullet,” an excerpt from the cartoon “The Boondocks,” and a speech by Donald Rumsfeld on democracy in Afghanistan to teach a four-day mini-unit on the electoral process and the principles of representative democracy. It is a particularly strong set of lessons that not only seamlessly integrates hip-hop into the content, but also builds literacy skills, encourages critical thinking, and promotes active student participation.
There are two things that impress me most about The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook. First is the scope of the project. Using hip-hop in the Language Arts is a no-brainer. One of the earliest pieces I wrote for Rethinking Schools did just that (Vol. 12, No. 2). The guidebook, however, is more rigorous than I was. Here readers will find lessons dealing not only with language arts, but also geography (“International Hip-Hop Geography,” by Daniel Zarazua), mathematics (“Microphone Check 1, 2, 1, 2: Using Hip-Hop to Review Math Skills,” by Andrew J. Ryan), anatomy (“Break Dancing and the Muscular System,” by Tatiana Forero Puerta), and technology (“Conducting Effective Internet Research,” by Orisanmi Burton), among others. Most middle and high school teachers will find useful and creative lessons here.
The scope of The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook also points to its second impressive aspect: You don’t have to identify as a hip-hop head to use it. The editors and contributors to this volume are aware of the hesitations non-hip-hop identified teachers may have in using these materials. To alleviate such hesitations, the guidebook begins with a series of framing essays that introduce the reader to the history and complexities of hip-hop music and culture, recognizing that some teachers who make use of this resource are themselves students of, rather than participants in, hip-hop culture.
As they discuss in their “core values” section, teachers who teach hip-hop don’t have to love it, just value and respect hip-hop culture as a valid cultural form.
Holding The Hip-Hop Guidebook in my hands helps put me at ease. It tells me that being a teacher and being hip-hop are not contradictory, and that, as the hip-hop generation matures, we are renaming ourselves as hip-hop educators, hip-hop activists, and hip-hop journalists. We are creating new identities for new times and new generations.
Even though contradictions still exist within hip-hop, and we still struggle with sexism, misogyny, and homophobia, we are also growing, learning, and educating in leaps and bounds. I guess the next time I question the state of hip-hop, I’ll do as Mos Def says. I’ll check with myself, I’ll check with Byron Hurt and Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, and I’ll check with Marcella Runell, Martha Diaz, and the contributors to The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook, and be hopeful. After all, we are hip-hop.