Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes



10 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20
KCET (Los Angeles)

At the outset of his documentary, an episode of "Independent Lens," Byron Hurt tells the camera he grew up on hip-hop music and still likes it. At the same time, he's troubled by it. Hurt, a former quarterback at Northeastern University in Boston, took a job with a program that aims to prevent domestic violence and college-based rape. That, in turn, opened his eyes to the lyrics of rap.

Hip-hop had been such a big part of his life that Hurt feels guilty criticizing it, but the question has to be asked: Why is this form of music, which is so closely associated with black youth, dominated by lyrics that promote violence, demean women and belittle gays? Also, though this is of lesser import in the hourlong film, does anyone really care?

So Hurt and his photographer set on an earnest journey to find answers. They talk to rappers, academicians, activists and entertainment industry execs. They also make a dispiriting side trip to the 2003 Spring Bling weekend, an annual event sponsored by the BET network.

Hurt is sincere in his quest for answers, but often what he gets sounds more like excuses than reasons. Our society limits the ways men can express themselves, says one interviewee. It's not just hip-hop, says rapper Jadakiss. There's also violence in the movies. All true, of course, but not particularly helpful or relevant. After all, lack of opportunities for male expression and movie violence didn't turn other music genres into deadly battlegrounds or fill their lyrics with threats and insults.

More vexing than the search for answers are the attitudes Hurt encounters. Russell Simmons, co-founder of pioneering hip-hop label Def Jam, makes a joke of Hurt's question before giving a nonanswer. BET programming exec Steve Hill "just passed the buck," Hurt reports. Meanwhile, the young men at BET's Spring Bling weekend, many of them aspiring rappers, have no qualms about the anti-social lyrics. And the women say they don't mind the references to bitches and hos because they don't think it applies to them.

Race, it seems, also plays a role. Carmen Ashurst, a former Def Jam exec, said the push to gangsta rap occurred when the industry consolidated and the marketers began to hold sway. At the same time, the music found a receptive audience with white kids. There is a kernel of truth to all this, as well, but there is a limit to what can be sold if an audience is unreceptive. In other words, there must be something in rap lyrics that resonates with black youths for this genre to succeed.

Like most sociological phenomena, the answers are complex and the search for truth frustrating. Hurt's documentary is well-organized but not particularly polished. The same clips from music videos are shown repeatedly, for example. Still, he deserves credit for tackling an issue that has for too long been too racially sensitive to explore.

God Bless the Child Prods. and the Independent Television Service in association with the National Black Programming Consortium
Executive producers: Stanley Nelson, Sally Jo Fifer
Producer-director-writer: Byron Hurt
Co-producer/editor: Sabrina Schmidt Gordon
Director of photography: Bill Winters