MVExpose – Theorizing Hip Hop Feminisms

written by Michele Wong

This semester, I’m taking a class at York University called Theorizing Hip Hop Feminisms. I honestly thought my professor would present videos like the Freshest Kids or something else I’ve already seen.

I was wrong… she showed something I not only never watched, but never heard of. Yes, I am very ashamed.

Byron Hurt (picture below) is an anti-sexist activist and filmmaker from Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Northeastern University as a quarterback… and get this: after he graduated he was hired by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society’s Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, where he became a spokesperson for domestic violence prevention. When he started he had no idea what he was doing, but after much research he became what I would say an expert.

Hurt had a love and passion for the culture of hip-hop. He also realized that in today’s society and hip-hop in particular, there is an excess in hyper-masculinity. Why do men degrade other men by feminizing them (i.e. emcee battles), or why is this culture in particular so homophobic yet so homoerotic?

He set out looking for the answer by raising money and creating the award winning documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, written and produced by Hurt. It explored
the issues of masculinity, violence, homophobia and sexism in hip-hop music through interviews with artists, academics, a feminist, aspiring rappers and fans. Just some of those featured in the film include Chuck D, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Jadakiss, Russell Simmons, Emil Wilkbekin, Stephen Hill, Sarah Jones Carmen Ashhurt-Watson, Dr. Jelani Cobb, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Kevin Powell, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Jason Katz, and Dr. James Peterson.

The opening scene captures its audience by first calling hip hop today, a box. No one leaves or goes outside the box because if they did, they’d be called a pussy, a wuss, a homo, a chump (see youtube video below). He’s right. I see it everyday. I see it in my friends, where when they make a
sexual pun, they right away MUST say pause or no homo.Well fast forward a moment.

The film is not there to attack the hip-hop heads. The film is to make everyone aware of what is going on. Feminists have been doing so since day one. The interesting thing about Hurt is that he doesn’t coin the term feminist. Nor does he give feminists (especially black feminist thought) the
credit it deserves for the ideas he uses in film… and for good reason. Feminism has been given a bad rap. The moment you say the word people back off. So before you go judging, this is a feminist film in a man’s perspective, in a non-feminist lecturing way. He also does not attack the
individual, in fact, I would say he victimizes the individual rapper by situating him in the reality of white supremacist capitalist society. It sounds weird, but I’ll describe more later.

This film was, how I would describe written, filmed and produced perfectly.

The issues Beyond Beats and Breaks acknowledges are Masculinity, Misogyny & Homophobia and Media Literacy.

Masculinity may sound like a good thing to a man. I mean it is the traditional notion to teach a boy to “be a man.” However, when hypermasculinity go hand in hand with violence, it creates societal and systemic problems seen in our schools, communities and neighbourhoods today.
He suggests that one way of counteracting hypermasculinity is develop other ways and notions of “being a man” and by doing so we have to step away from this one-dimensional way of seeing things, and in this case, “we” means hip hop.

At the BET’s annual spring fling in Daytona, Florida, Hurt interviews aspiring rappers. Each and every one of them he encounters rapped about rape, guns, violence, while dominating other men by demeaning and feminizing them.

Another young man, licks his lips at the women in Daytona, in hopes of getting some “bitches and hoes” and explains that women who dress like the women in music videos are not considered sisters but considered a bitch or a ho. Hurt calls the women over dressed in bikinis and asked if they
considered themselves as a bitch or a ho. They replied that they are not. When asked about the music videos and how they feel about it, they replied that the music videos are simply not talking about them.

This part is my favourite part. Brace yourself.

Hurt illustrates a hypothetical picture: George Bush doing a speech in front of a nation and calls a group of black men niggers. He asks, would black people respond “oh they’re not talking about me”?

He makes a valid point. A very valid point.

What about homoeroticism in hip hop?

Interviewing three drag queens, they reveal how homoerotic the homophobic hip hop culture really is. A queen explains, when LL Cool J licks his lips or 50 Cent and Ja Rule pose half naked, greased up and muscular in music videos, magazines and album covers, women are not the only ones looking at that. Now there’s a thought.

“While these images might not have been created as explicitly homoerotic, hypermasculinity in hip-hop, sports and fraternity cultures serve to bond men together, often at the expense of women, gays and men who do not meet strict gender-based roles and expectations”

Like Hurt, I love hip hop myself. In fact, I’m big fans of Talib, Russell Simmons, Mos Def and Busta Rhymes. So it was shocking to me when I saw that not one of them had something conscious or respectful to say about the subject matter. Simmons responded that he simply did not have the
“equipment.” Go figure. Don’t get me wrong, I still got respect for him, though, I really want to smack him with my shoe and scream, “Racism isn’t the most important discrimination issue!”

Hurt does recognize that it is not all at the fault of the individuals – the rappers. He does not forget to include the overwhelming influence of the white supremacist capitalist culture – a term coined by bell hooks. In one of my readings for class, it makes the comparison of how black rappers today are still enslaved by the superior white capitalist culture. Money is just the diversion. They are trapped in the box and imprisoned to demean other black men and women through their lyrics.

The slaughter of hip-hop began during its establishment in the mainstream “growing increasingly limited and one dimensional.” When Hurt confronts the aspiring rappers about their unoriginal lyrics, they immediately respond defensively that its what “they” want to hear. It’s how to get a record deal.

A good friend of mine once told me that if you wave a million dollars in a poor man’s face, they’ll do anything you want to get it. It sure looks like he’s right.

Hurt explores how white-owned record labels run their businesses. In 2003, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission lifted the bans on media deregulation, allowing media corporations to own multiple radio stations, television networks and other sources of entertainment (around the time when Def Jam was bought out). These corporations in turn have expanded their buyers to white consumers, raking in millions more.

A while back, I watched Oprah’s Town Hall Meeting on Hip Hop. A guest compared today’s rap videos to the Birth of a Nation. If you’ve watched it, I hope you hated it. The film was made in 1915 after the Civil War depicting black men as hypersexual, dangerous animals (especially to white women). It was highly racist and was used to recruit Ku Klux Klan members, which worked. When I heard that comparison, I was appalled.

In Hurt’s documentary, he shows clips of Birth of a Nation.With no surprise, I was disgusted.

I don’t normally watch a lot of music videos unless I youtube them myself to specifically watch one. So, when I watched Nelly’s Tip Drill video for the first time in the documentary, my jaw dropped. The man who made the comparison was right. Nelly is a victim of white supremacist capitalism.

Byron Hurt brings both academia and well-respected artists together, merging both paradigms collectively into a greater understanding for the world. The moment I finished watching the documentary in class I bought it and I encourage every one who has love and respect for hip hop, hyper-emasculated or not, to watch it. It’s one to keep in your collection.

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