Commentary: Hip-hop and the images of black manhood

I'm not a fan of the images rap and hip-hop music embrace, specifically those of sagging pants, violence, misogyny and greed.

Those images, however, have sometimes come to define black manhood.

Byron Hurt, a New York filmmaker, writer and activist, has explored those images in hip-hop culture and in society, and the definitions of masculinity those images foster.

Hurt contends the narrow negative image projected in music videos has become the dominant image of manhood because it sells.

"The powerful image that we see resonates because it looks powerful," Hurt said by phone. "It looks powerful, it feels powerful. That kind of masculinity gives some young boys and some older men a false sense of manhood."

In his documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes — which has been shown at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and broadcast on PBS's Independent Lens series in 2007 — Hurt says he loves hip-hop, grew up with the genre, but he's trying to "get us men to take a hard look at ourselves."

Men should not allow themselves to be defined by the tough, always-in-control, swinger/player images the videos project, he said. That's a very narrow view of hip-hop and very stereotypical.

"Hip-hop in general is not problematic," he said. "But the most negative images make the most money."

The violent, criminal, misogynistic and homophobic personas are reminiscent of the Scarface and The Godfather movies produced in Hollywood. And the artists don't "fully understand the impact on young men," Hurt said.

Hurt will explain more at 6:30 p.m., Nov. 18, in Room 230 of the University of Kentucky Student Center.

"I'm going to talk about my evolution from athlete to anti-sexism activist," Hurt said by phone last week.

His appearance is the final segment of a three-week series on black men that has featured Hurt's work. The series is part of an ongoing discussion called "Dialogues on Race" sponsored by UK's African American Studies & Research Program.

Sonja Feist-Price, director of AASRP, said she has had a keen interest in the way men identify themselves, which is why she sponsored the series.

She said young men who can't "subscribe to the more pro-social ways" of self-identification sometimes choose to identify with the more prevalent images that aren't positive.

"There are a myriad of issues that bombard black men and they are then forced to make meaning out of their lives," Feist-Price said. "We need to discuss this and shed light on this. There are some pro-social ways of being a successful black man."

The series concludes Wednesday with Hurt's recent short film Barack & Curtis: Manhood, Power & Respect, in which he contrasts President Barack Obama's smooth, intellectual version of manhood with that of rapper Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent, who portrays a tough, streetwise thug.

Hurt, a former quarterback at Northeastern University in Boston, is a respected anti-sexism activist and founding member of the college-based Mentors in Violence Prevention initiative for college and professional athletes. He said it was a man who helped him change the way he views women.

"It's going to take education and activism" to turn the image of masculinity back to the hard-working, family-supporting men seen daily in the black community and away from a commercial image.

Feist-Price agreed.

"Sometimes it is difficult fighting against a media system," she said. "The Civil Rights movement was not easy. But we overcame a lot. This is not insurmountable."

Hurt said Obama is one man who models a wide range of masculinity.

"We need to move beyond the idea that manhood is violence and materialism," Hurt said. "It is also about leadership, sensitivity, intelligence and compassion.

"I want you to really emphasize that there are Barack Obamas in our communities who don't get the attention," Hurt said. "There are many ways to display masculinity."

Right now the negative image has the spotlight and that needs to change.