Interview: Byron Hurt

Byron Hurt is the New Jersey-based producer of the award-winning documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes, regarding hyper masculinity in Hip-Hop and violence towards women. Hurt, 35, is a former Northeastern University football quarterback and long-time gender violence prevention educator. He is the also former associate director of the first gender violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps. Hurt was the recipient of the prestigious echoing green public service fellowship in 1999, an award given to ambitious young activists devoted to creating social change in their communities. Over the past decade, Hurt has lectured at more than 100 college campuses and trained thousands of young men and women on issues related to gender, race, sex, violence, music and visual

YMR: A youth media educator who led me to your work uses your documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes for high-school youth and college students. He says that young people are very resistant to critiquing hip-hop and feel personally attacked. But ultimately, the film helps to create light bulbs. How can young people resist those critiques and expand on their realizations?
Hurt: When I was 18, I didn’t want to hear critiques of hip-hop. But young people are more receptive to critiques if it is coming from people who are more like them; [someone who] understands it, loves it, can speak truthfully and present clear evidence as to why it is problematic. [In] presenting very clear, visible examples, there can be moments for these light bulbs to go off. That is how I made the film—to be very clear about perspective.
YMR: If you had an opportunity to see your film and have access to youth media as a teenager, how would that have changed your life?
Hurt: I think it would have blown me away and I would have listened to hip-hop very differently at 15 or 16—at least that is what I would like to believe. In college, I watched Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustments by Marlon Riggs, and those films completely changed the way I watched television. I wanted to have that kind of impact on the minds of young people because I saw how powerful film can be in transforming people.
YMR: How can youth media educators best support young people to make their own media and hip-hop?
Hurt: Support their ideas and vision; give them room to make mistakes [and] not be perfect, [and] help develop their concepts. I really push, prod and challenge people to think critically. One important function of educators is to get people to be more media literate. Because nobody wants to be mislead and nobody wants to be fooled. When you present people with information—real solid, strong information—then young people can make new choices. But not everyone is going to do [something with that information] or want to be a conscious rapper; maybe two or three from one particular group. But those two or three really need to be supported and nurtured.
That is what happened to me. There were people around me—older educators—who identified me as someone with a great deal of potential. This wasn’t from a hip-hop [or media] context [but the same story applies].
When I was a sophomore in high school my coach saw something in me and took a risk to give me a chance. He had other athletes on his team that were better than me. But they didn’t work as hard, disciplined and focused. He could have made an easier decision. But he gave me an opportunity because he saw leadership potential. You know what? Prior to that, I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was hanging out, drinking, and doing crazy things. But when he gave me that opportunity, I stopped doing all of that. I realized that this was an opportunity. I didn’t come from a lot of money and I realized that if I wanted to go to college, one of the best ways to do it was to get a football scholarship.
We need an older person—educators—to have a pivotal role in young people’s lives.
YMR: Would you say that young people—who have easy access to media—have the potential to make a film like yours at their age?
Hurt: They need somebody to help them in the right way. They need a model and someone with skill sets that can help them. You can make a film, but if the story is not good, nobody is going to watch it. You need mentors that can help youth realize their vision and to do it in a way that is powerful. Young people are creative and capable of doing things that they don’t get enough credit for. We need to give young people the chance to let them flow.
YMR: How would you suggest mentors take your knowledge—on hip-hop, hyper-masculinity, and misogyny—and apply that in working with young people? How can they go against the grain? What tools do or should they have?
Hurt: When it comes to hip-hop, the educator in the room needs to be someone who has the ear of the students. If [a] teacher recognizes that they are not within their realm of expertise, than they should bring in people who do and can be an inspiration or role model. All you have to do is google search “hip-hop activism” or “hip-hop educators.” Educators can expose young people to the books, websites, and even invite people like Kevin Powell, Jelani Cobb, Quentin Walcott, Ted Bunch (speaking against violence and masculinity), Tricia Rose, bell hooks, Joan Morgan, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Monifa Bandele, Aisha Durham, Tony Blackman, and Jean Grae to speak at their schools. [In addition], many hip-hop and rap artists are willing to come in to schools and inform youth about the industry and educate people around hip-hop in positive ways.
Educators need to be very challenging to their students. That is the [main] role of educators—to challenge their students. What makes it so difficult is that popular culture is so pervasive and it is everywhere. Youth are being bombarded with very glamorous and romanticized images and representations. Outside of class, young people go back into that space. So teachers have to reinforce and repeat the counter-message. The bottom line is that sometimes the message you are sending will not have an immediate change. It could happen years later, but you need to plant that seed [in] people. [Educators] have to be very, very patient. Because change happens incrementally—it doesn’t happen over night.
Educators need to be determined and committed to providing young people with examples of where you would like to see them go.
YMR: What about global youth who are only exposed to mainstream western/U.S.-based hip-hop? And what do you advise to youth media educators around the globe in working with youth that value hip-hop as a social change agent? Or, to youth who do not have access to such programs?
Hurt: It is problematic. And it comes down to the grassroots people who have to roll up their sleeves and educate. If institutions are not providing for youth, it is going to come down to people locally who have the ear of their communities.
It is very difficult to change the direction of hip-hop. Are people doing enough to promote hip-hop that has alternative messages (and therefore unpopular) like Stickman? Sure, youth buy into what they see on television and the mainstream. But I’ve been traveling all over the country and young people are telling me that they aren’t listening to mainstream hip-hop; that they don’t listen to the radio anymore and cater to old skool hip-hop. Young people are tired. A lot of them are finding what they like in alternative spaces (like the internet, MySpace and YouTube) to find what they want. And [young people] can determine good music.
YMR: But the media changes very fast. Earlier you mentioned that hip-hop may not be the source of the kind of socially conscious media that comes out but in fact, will play out in different forms. Can you elaborate?
Hurt: All hip-hop is not the same. You have some that is completely reductionist hip-hop, retrograde hip-hop, and then you have hip-hop that has kernels of truth, wisdom, honesty, complexity and nuance. But you have to have a hip-hop ear in order to identify and be able to use it as a teaching tool. Just because lyrics may be saying “bad” things does not mean you can’t use it. And I think the best educators are people who know and understand what people are listening to and use that form to think more deeply about what they are consuming.
I really wish I had a crystal ball to see what hip-hop will be like in the next two years. I am not really feeling hip-hop right now. It is different from the kind of hip-hop I grew up with. But like I said before, with the upcoming election with Obama serving as such a powerful example of (male) leadership, I think the paradigm may shift in terms of what young people believe they can be and what the options are for themselves.
All of what we are seeing in the culture now—increase in crime, police brutality, and people struggling with the day to day—still, hip-hop is timely and necessary. For example, the rapper The Game (who has a lot of street credibility) after the Sean Bell verdict commented in a very clear, thoughtful, and intelligent way, jumping out of the box completely. And he spoke his mind, revealing that he is a deep thinker concerned about social issues and unafraid to speak his mind. It was stunning to me because I had never seen that side of him before. I think we have to give people like him credit.
The way I listen to hip-hop is very different than the way a 16 or 17-year-old is going to experience it…maturity, wisdom and education happens slowly. It is my responsibility and that of educators to raise the bar for them, challenge and educate.
Educators need to raise their game [and] stop blaming young people for not being what you want them to be. Don’t be a lazy educator. If you [pursued] teaching to influence young people’s minds, don’t let yourself be in the position of a babysitter. And don’t be afraid of your kids. Get in there and engage. If hip-hop is what your kids are into than learn everything you can about it. Ask young people questions—because they will most likely educate you.
YMR: What will it take to raise the bar?
Hurt: Look at examples like Kanye West or Lupe Fiasco. Fiasco has been very successful in having his music played and supported by commercial radio but also having a different message. His video for “Dump it Down” he explains how record companies and his label asked him to dumb his music and lyrics down, have girls and cars in his video, and how he refused to do it. He is talented and intelligent and strong minded. It is going to take strong minded individuals to flip the script and make the cool, “cool.”
There is yet a young person [to] emerge to be that person. I don’t know who that is but we’ve had examples of that in the past. There was a whole era in hip-up (and you know this) where it was cool to be smart and have pro-social messages; to talk about reading books, knowledge and the knowledge of self and all those different things.
I was asking myself while listening to the radio the other day. “Will conscious hip-hop ever return?” Are old skool hip-hop fans being naïve or nostalgic of the golden era of hop-hop?” I think hip-hop is always going to change and whatever is going on in the culture is what hip-hop is going to sound like. But things aren’t going too well right now in America. I think we’re going to hear a lot of that in the music. Time will tell. We need to be patient.
YMR: Do you think it is possible for young people to make social change?
Hurt: Absolutely. [Young people] are the people that create change—[those who] are unafraid, who don’t know what they are getting into (laughs), who don’t have a lot to loose…I think most social movements are spurred by young people—civil rights, immigration—Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. did incredible things as young people. It is always adults that resist change.
YMR: Do you think youth media is part of the solution to social change?
Hurt: I think they have to be because the youth are what drives hip-hop. They are and have to be part of change. They have tools at their disposal, but need to be clear and strategic in how they use them. That’s how hip-hop got started. Making something out of nothing.
YMR: So if adults are helping young people in the field of youth media, what advice can you give to them?
Hurt: Keep doing what you are doing, take care of yourself, don’t get burnt out/over-taxed, stay optimistic, and identify the great things about your students.