Words can hurt
A panel of hip-hop personalities come face to face with a bitter truth: The music they love may be damaging to their culture.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 20, 2007
H e's the biggest personality at one of the biggest radio stations playing rap music in the Tampa Bay area.
But after nearly two hours discussing the violence, misogyny and materialism that fills so much hip-hop culture today, Wild 98.7 morning man Orlando Davis came to a pointed conclusion.
"It's like a cancer, or like crack going into neighborhoods . . . Gangsta rap has been destructive as the Klan (to black culture)," said Davis, program director and morning personality at hip-hop party station WLLD-FM 98.7. "If (racists) would have created it . . . they wouldn't have had to get their hands dirty."
Davis' comments capped an eclectic panel discussion last week that began with a screening of Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. The PBS documentary, airing tonight, was assembled by Byron Hurt, an avid rap fan who forced himself to take a hard look at the music he loves.
The panel - radio personalities and rappers from local hip-hop and soul scenes convened by the St. Petersburg Times - came ready to acknowledge serious problems within the industry before watching a single frame of film.
They also came with ready-made justifications. Artists aren't educated enough on how to present better images, one person said. White-owned record companies push violent music for profit, another observed. Everyone agreed that violence in mainstream entertainment - from Rambo movies to Grand Theft Auto video games - inspired and mirrored rap's problems.
It took time for the entire group to buy into the documentary's central premise: Even avid devotees can no longer ignore how the genre's most negative elements are affecting a generation of fans.
"The key word is responsibility . . . the artists gotta realize, 'Hey, I have the power of a voice,' " said Kervens Joseph, a rapper known as Acafool.
At the discussion's start, he was insistent that "hip-hop doesn't make a man . . . That (the video screen) is not a classroom."
But 90 minutes later, Joseph was acknowledging "at some point, I have to take responsibility to put out the best image possible. We already know (the violence and law-breaking) going on in the 'hood. It's time to tell those people in the 'hood what they gotta do to get out of the situation."
Betrayed by the music
Filmmaker Hurt knows that journey well. It's what led him to spend more than two years making Beats and Rhymes.
An avid fan plugged into hip-hop culture, he only began to face its more troubling aspects after he got a job teaching young men about the pathology of violence against women.
"I've learned to listen to hip-hop with a discerning ear . . . and it was important to get other people to do that as well," said Hurt, 37, speaking by telephone from his Plainfield, N.J., office.
"I always felt there was a silent majority of hip-hop fans who were tired of the same old stereotypical, reductionist images," he said. "A lot of people are afraid of saying something because they don't want to be thought of as a 'playa hata' - a hater of the art form. (But) I considered it my way of giving back."
Hurt's film trains an incisive eye on rap's most questionable areas, taking us to Black Entertainment Television's Spring Bling event in Daytona Beach to show how aspiring rappers have focused on gangsta style as the surest route to success.
His cameras catch crowds of young men repeatedly groping bikini-clad women during the sprawling party - many women cannot walk three steps without fending off unwanted hands. This bustling, chaotic dance seems to embody the fantasy of black women as sexual playthings so often depicted in popular rap videos.
Later, Hurt tries asking rapper Busta Rhymes about antigay lyrics in rap (Rhymes reportedly went ballistic when a gay fan tapped him on the shoulder in Miami last year). The star walks away. Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons also demurs when asked about antifemale themes.
As jarring statistics flash on screen - 49 percent of gunshot deaths involve black men ages 15 to 24, reads one - Hurt connects the dots from prison culture to rap fashion to the music's overwhelmingly white fan base, even to homoeroticism in the endless images of shirtless, well-muscled stars.
"All of the major players feel a little uncomfortable at some point when they watch the film," Hurt said. "It's the rapper himself, the hip-hop audience, the women who are complicit and the white fans, too. They're watching this film that indicts black people and black culture, but at the end, they're part of this machine, too."
'Cuss words and sass'
The local panel agreed that much of this problematic imagery comes from the success of gangster-oriented rap, which has taken over the mainstream of hip-hop culture.
"People like negativity," said Victoria Jackson, 24, who teaches at a Tampa school for the disabled by day and raps under the stage name Janu by night.
"(Fans think) entertainment isn't fun unless it's negative . . . unless it has sex, violence, power . . . with cuss words and sass to it."
Hurt's film outlines the way hip-hop culture pushes male artists and fans into presenting a "hypermasculine" image to the world; requiring them to show toughness, domination of other men, wealth and widespread success with women. Not even the most successful artists or producers are immune to the pressure.
"(Successful stars) say you know what, I'm not going to get in every beef. . . . I'm a businessman now; I sign checks," said Bobby "DJ Ekin" Hack, 25, mix show coordinator for WBTP-FM 95.7 the Beat. "Now they're doing big business, but you know what happens? (Fans say) they're soft. They're not what we want anymore."
Small wonder 50 Cent still steps out of his Connecticut mansion draped in diamond-crusted jewelry and a bulletproof vest.
Rap once was known mostly for revealing the hidden truth of life in the black underclass. Now, amid bling and bravado, rappers recycle tales of murder and mayhem for an increasingly white audience.
"It's white folks' fascination with black people . . . the same reason why Amos 'N' Andy was popular," said Deb Hinds, 38, a DJ at WMNF-FM 88.5 and CEO of the neo-soul-focused site Planetsoul.com.
"Those of us in our 30s and 40s remember the beginnings of hip-hop and loving it . . . (because) there was more diversity in the music," said Hinds, recalling the days when activist rappers KRS-One and Public Enemy shared the charts with harder-edged MCs. "Now, it's just one message that seems so unoriginal and uncreative."
The next step
One question Hurt's expansive documentary doesn't fully answer: How does a fan extract the negativity from one of the most creative and popular genres of pop music on the planet?
Hinds suggested hip-hop heads use the Internet to find and support new forms of music. Jackson hopes artists will present lyrics with a new focus. Joseph imagines a joint effort between artists and parents to keep young minds from consuming destructive images.
But Ekin had a more practical point of view.
"At the end of the day, hip-hop thrives because we think no one wants us (around)," he said, laughing. "So we do everything - YouTube (videos), flyers, mix tapes sold out of our cars . . . rappers are the biggest champions of their own music. And that is why it won't stop until we feel like it should stop."
All this dialogue is precisely the point for Hurt, who wanted to bring the conversation about rap and black manhood to those who may never have asked these questions before.
"It's not that I feel hip-hop is killing American culture as much as I'm saying hip-hop is reinforcing what is already there in society," he said.
"I'm asking artists to give up privilege. It's a privilege to talk about killing people without question. My pie in the sky hope is that we wake up and come out of this drunken stupor where anything goes," Hurt said.
"As an artist, are you raising the bar or lowering the bar?"
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org or see his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
WHAT THEY THINK"The proliferation of violence out there is just one huge beep tone over hip hop. And it's literally just sinking into everybody’s head like a subliminal message." -- Orlando Davis, 35, program director at Wild 98.7
"In my music . . . I call guys dudes. I say 'my ladies' or 'chicks.' . . . You have to read books and heighten up your vocabulary to make it work." -- Victoria Jackson, 24, teacher at Achieve Tampa Bay, a Tampa school for disabled kids, who raps as Janu. She tries not to use the "n" word or other offensive language.
"(Rap stars), you came from an environment, you escaped that environ-ment . . . you grew, you learned. But you didn't pass that knowledge along. And you continue to perpetuate your past and not your present . . . You're not showing (fans) how to grow. That's a problem." -- Kervens Joseph, music studio owner and sometimes instructor at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa, also known as rapper Acafool
"When hip-hop started, people always said it was just the mirror of the culture, just a mirror of someone's environment. And it seemed like it was in the beginning. Now, is it really a mirror or are people feeling like they have to act like this to sell records?" -- Deb Hinds, 38, host of a neo-soul show on WMNF-FM 88.5 and CEO of Planetsoul.com
"(Rap star) 50 Cent took everything that went wrong with him and made it positive. Granted, the music that you hear is not maybe what you want to hear. But at the end of the day, he's really only talking about what he goes through." -- Bobby "DJ Ekin" Hack, 29, mix show coordinator for WBTP-FM 95.7 (the Beat)
Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes
Tonight at 11, WEDU-Ch. 3