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He loves rap but not the gangsta message

Filmmaker Byron HurtOriginally published in Current, Dec. 18, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

In the mid-1990s, Byron Hurt, a former college football quarterback and aspiring filmmaker, began training to mentor young men for a violence prevention program in the Boston area.

He spent his days listening to instructors discuss the nature of masculine identity and the roots of sexism and violent behavior. Then the longtime hip-hop fan drove home, listening to considerably less enlightened riffs on the same subjects rhymed atop sampled grooves and infectious beats.

“I’d be in the car on the way home, saying to myself, ‘What am I listening to?’” he recalls. “The stuff was blatantly violent, misogynistic, materialistic and homophobic.”

“It became clear that the music I was listening to needed to be challenged,” he adds.

That notion led to Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, a hit at Sundance last year that will debut on broadcast TV Feb. 20 [2007] on ITVS’s Independent Lens. The doc, which received seed money from the National Black Programming Consortium, was produced by Hurt’s God Bless the Child Productions Inc.

Beyond Beats and Rhymes takes a hard look at mainstream hip-hop’s heavy dose of sexist and violent imagery, and uses frank interviews with artists, impresarios and aspirants to suss out the reasons why many rappers, record labels and fans embrace demeaning and destructive themes.

“I’m not trying to slam hip-hop, I’m just trying to ask important questions about it,” Hurt says. “And I got a lot less resistance from the artists than people would imagine.”

The result is a kaleidoscopic film that hops from recording studios to hip-hop conferences to universities to the Spring Bling in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Who’s accountable? Not just rappers

Along the way, viewers see rap stars swiping credit cards between girls’ buttocks, wannabes rhyming about drugs and gunplay because they think it’s the only way to get a record deal, bikini-clad college girls saying the “bitch” and “ho” lyrics are fine because “they’re not talking about us,” fans eating it up and label and network execs, such as BET’s Stephen Hill, declining to answer the criticism.

“Byron holds everyone accountable, not just the artists,” says Lois Vossen, series producer for Independent Lens. “Everybody’s on the hook and we have to figure out how we got here.”

Not all hip-hop embraces depraved imagery, of course. Public Enemy, among other groups, is legendary for its thoughtful take on rap, and many current artists, such as Talib Kweli, still favor a “conscious” approach.

But foul messages are so pervasive in mainstream hip-hop, that viewers have given Beyond Beats and Rhymes standing ovations at dozens of screenings over the past year and stayed for hours after panel discussions to discuss the film, Vossen says.

Stations have enthusiastically jumped on board because they see an immediate, credible take on a tricky issue that engages a hard-to-reach young, diverse audience.

“I think one of the reasons this film has hit such a nerve with everybody is because, for many people, it’s the first time they’ve heard someone stand up and be critical” about hip-hop messages, says Stanley Nelson, award-winning filmmaker and e.p. for Beyond Beats and Rhymes. “And it’s a fan that’s being critical.”

That last part is key, say station reps. Because the film openly explores Hurt’s own conflicted feelings about the music he clearly loves, it has an insider credibility that a traditional, sober journalistic examination couldn’t claim, they say.

“His man-on-the-street approach has a lot of power,” says Mandy Wilson, communications and community services manager for Georgia Public Broadcasting. “This isn’t a sterile, outsider report.”

“I was that guy,” Hurt says early in the film, with a still of him partying, malt liquor bottle in hand. “Then everything changed.”

Public TV stations, not exactly known for their hip-hop cred, have been happy to piggyback on Hurt’s as he crisscrossed the country taking his film to screenings at schools, universities and community centers.

Stations such as GPB, WHYY in Philadelphia and WHUT in Washington, D.C.—with help from $10,000 ITVS outreach grants—have partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs and other groups on discussions, performances and projects that help students create positive hip-hop artworks.

“When we asked the students at one of our events how they knew WHYY, they all mentioned cartoons,” says Kim Pacini, WHYY’s civic space coordinator. “This has definitely helped us connect with the urban youth sector on a different level.”
On a national level, PBS featured Hurt and his film at the TV critics press tour in Pasadena earlier this month.

It also worked closely with ITVS and Hurt’s team to arrive at a version of the film that balances the need to depict the imagery with stations’ need to stay on the FCC’s good side.
Profane audio was dropped out and exceedingly fleshy images were pixilated. As with all ITVS programs, the film is indemnified to protect stations, Vossen says.

Hurt doesn’t think the edits compromise the film’s effectiveness.

“My goal is to reach the largest audience possible,” he says.
Who will see Hurt’s film?

Beyond Beats and Rhymes reiterates the fact that white consumers buy a lot of the rap recordings—as much as 60 to 70 percent, according to the film. But it also makes clear that it is African-American and Latino kids that are more likely to internalize the music’s parade of guns, g-strings and glorifications of thuggery.

So since public TV is not exactly known for its young minority audience, will the next month’s broadcast reach those who arguably would benefit most from seeing this film?

“Probably not,” Hurt says, frankly.

“That’s why I’m out there showing this to communities of color,” he says. “My efforts between now and Feb. 20 are dedicated to bringing as many people to the broadcast as possible.”

ITVS gave five stations in key hip-hop markets CPB-funded grants to build outreach campaigns, and partnered with Nelson’s Firelight Media and community groups to reach its target audience, Vossen says. More than 30 additional events are planned nationwide.

Vossen stressed that the film offers something for teachers, parents, aunts, uncles and anyone else exposed to the dominant pop music genre, or who has loved ones who are.
In addition, “it’s unfair to assume African-Americans don’t watch public TV if there’s something on that actually speaks to them,” she says.

“Black people let each other know when there’s something on PBS worth watching,” Hurt says.

So far, the buzz about Beyond Beats and Rhymes has been such that more stations than usual have asked to carry the initial Independent Lens feed on Feb. 20, says Susie Hernandez, ITVS’s associate director for broadcast. Stations hope to capitalize on expected press from Entertainment Weekly and other national publications that showed heavy interest at this month’s press tour, she says.

Nelson, a mentor to Hurt, hopes that ITVS’s pop-out publicity for the film and resulting attention can be a model for a system that, in his opinion, always talks about wanting a more diverse audience but doesn’t often act to make it so.

“Byron is just this one guy who wrote this treatment and sent it to ITVS,” he says. “Hopefully PBS and CPB can take a look at the reaction this one guy’s film is getting and do more like it.”

Web page posted Jan. 29, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Sarah Jones, a performance artist critical of woman-hating, consumerist lyrics, ran afoul of the FCC with a 2001 broadcast on KBOO-FM, but the commission dropped its fine in 2003.


Website for the program on PBS's Independent Lens site, with viewer forum, videos to rate and hip-hop glossary.

Vibe magazine interview with Hurt.

CPB President Patricia Harrison introduces Hurt's film at a screening Feb. 1 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, a block from CPB's offices.

Hurt's God Bless the Child Productions Inc.

NPR's 2005 look back at an earlier campaign against questionable lyrics in young people's music, by Tipper Gore before her husband's White House campaign.