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ATLANTA -- Cut through the beats and the bling and the braggadocio, and you'll find that hip-hop is all about dialogue. No rapper wants to speak into a vacuum. The idea is to start a conversation.
It doesn't always work. Audiences often respond with emulation -- simply talking the way rappers talk and acting the way rappers act, to create a kind of feedback loop. But sometimes, the audience talks back.
Last year, the women of Spelman College famously raised their voices in protesting St. Louis rapper Nelly, whose "Tip Drill" video depicted the artist swiping a credit card down a woman's backside.
They haven't stopped talking. This week, veteran rapper MC Lyte and the Spelman community are joining forces for Hip-Hop Week, a forum that is part celebration and part critique, designed to advance the dialogue about the role of women in hip-hop culture.
"The students often talk about balance," said Tomika DePriest, a Spelman communications official who helped organize the event.
"There is a phrase that we use: 'We love hip-hop. Does hip-hop love us?' Essentially, what they're saying is, 'We embrace this thing called hip-hop. We do have some issues with it that we would like to address. And within that, what we want to see is more balance in the imagery."'
On Friday, Hip-Hop Week will spotlight Byron Hurt, a 35-year-old filmmaker who has spent the past four years making "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," a documentary-in-progress that asks serious questions about the hypersexuality and hypermasculinity running virtually unchecked in hip-hop.
The film includes interviews with rappers, intellectuals and men on the street.
Hurt captures street-level battle rappers attacking each other's manhood and shows footage of gangsta star 50 Cent mocking rival rapper Ja Rule for crying. He interviews Spelman prof Jelani Cobb, who connects such behavior to a long tradition of black men denying their fragility, talking tough to provide "psychic armor" against the world.
Then he pushes a step further, turning the tables on hip-hop's homophobia and exploring the homo-eroticism of rappers posing shirtless and greased-up. He uses visual cues to remind us that the gun, many rappers' favorite accessory, is a classic phallic symbol.
Underscoring the lack of conversation about the topic, Hurt's pointed questions make some interview subjects uncomfortable. Asked about homosexuality in hip-hop, rapper Busta Rhymes flees the room.
Many men think that criticism of hip-hop's gender roles is simple male-bashing, Hurt said, designed "to make black men look bad publicly."
But his film suggests that hip-hop's hyper-masculinity is a real problem. And, he said, "It's the men who are the ones who can really make the difference because we are the ones who are perpetuating this."
Aggressive masculinity has become the dominant cliche in hip-hop culture, with unsmiling rappers devoting verse after verse to their hardness and to the disposability of women. But hip-hop does have a vocal minority of sensitive male figures.
"When you look at Kanye West, when you look at Common, when you look at Jean Grae, who is a female up-and-coming MC in hip-hop, and you listen to their materials and you see their video images, you see the hope," DePriest said. "You see the other side of hip-hop that has been on the underbelly, if you will. The interesting thing is that there is what some would call a 'strip club culture' in videos today, the predominant video images that we see. And at one time, music like that was on the underbelly."
MC Lyte also sees reasons for hope.
Hip-Hop Week "is certainly a celebration of music and especially of women," she said. "And along with that, we're gonna have some guys there that have upheld women in a positive light.
And we're going to hopefully dissect their minds. And we're gonna find out how it is; maybe they've got answers that we're not aware of because they're men living in a man's world."
Nick Marino writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
c.2005 Cox News Service