Friday, October 24, 2008

Hate it or Love it the Underdog is on Top: Byron Hurt's "Barack & Curtis"

Byron Hurt recently released a new documentary entitled Barack & Curtis: Manhood, Power, and Respect. It explores how Barack Obama’s “manhood” is different from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s “manhood.” On the surface, it is a critical survey of current portrayals of black men. In reality, it is a thinly veiled attack on the culture and politics of the hip-hop generation.

The ideas revealed in the documentary are, for the most part, appalling. One person interviewed explains, “Black gangsta masculinity does the work of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.” Later, he says, “The Black gangsta masculine figure employs the exact same logic as the people who started the slave trade.” What???

Another person reports, “In the black community, masculinity is associated with how many women you have, how much weight you push, how many times you’ve been in prison…”

Really??? Is that a quote from Bill O’Reilly? Sounds like his opinion on hip-hop.

A deeper discussion of gender and sexuality in hip-hop is needed, especially since it's the one sore spot that hip-hop always gets attacked for. But it's difficult to even engage Hurt's film seriously on that note when it has so many glaring problems:

1. Hip-hop is once again the forum used to argue out the “good” black man vs. “bad” black man debate. There’s a class content to this but Hurt wants us to believe that this is just a question of morals, behavior, and choice. If only hip-hop would portray nicer men, less angry men, less violent men; men like Barack Obama. If only hip-hop would encourage young men to dress nicer, go to college, work within the system. Then we wouldn’t have so many angry, out-of-control black men that we have today.

But his vilification of men in hip-hop is actually a rejection of the real life content of class and youth rebellion that gets channeled through the music. The anger and tensions in 50 Cent’s music is an authentic and valid expression of the American (and global) working class. It’s an outlet, albeit exaggerated, for the tensions that people feel everyday. Someone like 50 Cent doesn’t rap about violence cuz it’s his nature or cuz he’s got some behavioral disorder. The hip-hop generation has our eyes wide open and we see the decay around us.

We see it, and hip-hop throws that same decay up for the rest of the world to see. It’s a rejection of the status quo, an affirmation of self and community in the face of constant attack, but because there’s not yet a mass organizational form for this content, it can be difficult to tease out the positive vision offered beyond this rejection. Hence critics like Hurt see only violence, crime, gangstas, chaos. Hip-hop is out of control in a sense, and that’s why Obama and all the other “good” men like him have to distance themselves from it. It’s not just because he’s on the campaign trail and has to appear acceptable to a broad mass of American people. It’s because he sees in hip-hop, perhaps even better than Hurt does, an energy and outlook that reject official society and the status quo and demand new types of social relations.

Herein lies the crux of the “good” black man vs. “bad” black man debate: it demands the hip-hop generation choose, will you be the man that puts your faith in a society that has failed you time and time again, or will you break out of it, rebel against it, express your disdain for it, by any means necessary?

2. The fact that Hurt chose to use Obama as representative of the “good” black man and 50 for the “bad” black man is important. This actually relates to larger issues raised by Obama’s campaign that hip-hop has had many contradictory responses to. Specifically, what does it mean for the hip-hop generation that we will be the first to witness a black president? What does that mean for the struggles captured in our music? Is Obama what all men should aspire to be like? Or are there alternative ideals expressed within the music?

We don’t take 50 Cent as emblematic of every black man in the US. But suppose we interpret his popularity to mean that he is representative of an experience and a sentiment that many young men (and women) can relate to. Then why is that collective experience under attack? Why isn’t it as valid as the experience of the “good” black men and women? Why is the type of hip-hop that 50 Cent is part of so dangerous to someone like Hurt? And who has the monopoly on defining what a good black man is or does?

3. Critiques of misogyny in hip-hop oftentimes depend on white supremacist ideas to back them up. Hence Barack & Curtis leaves one with the sense that misogyny in hip-hop is bad because it reinforces stereotypes that some white people have about black people. If black men would stop being so violent and scary and anti-woman, then they would fit better into society. Then they wouldn’t be doing “the work of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.” Obama’s “making” it, so the proof must be in the pudding, right?

What’s worse, Hurt’s critiques of misogyny aren’t consistent. The only idea we are offered about black women is that they should look to Michelle Obama as inspiration, that even though they’re “strong” women, they can still find a good man. In a previous film, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hurt spends a good deal of time critiquing the “video ho” stereotype in hip-hop, an image he says reinforces low self-esteem among women of color, the commodification of women’s bodies, and women’s financial and psychological dependence on men. Somehow, though, it’s progressive when the film tells women the most important lesson of Obama’s candidacy is how to find a good man. Is this the best that can be offered about the variety of identities, aspirations, and struggles expressed by black women? To really have a productive conversation about gender and sexuality, we need to start by looking at women's (and queer folks) self-activity within hip-hop and use that as a basis for developing perspectives about an anti-sexist, anti-homophobic hip-hop.

4. There is an irony in the way violence gets discussed. The “good” black man like Obama is portrayed as a nonviolent figure, while the “bad” black man like 50 Cent is the epitome of irrational, untamed violence. Yet Obama, among other campaign promises, has pledged to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan and to strengthen military attacks there. Phew, that’s a relief. Oh wait, thousands upon thousands of Afghani people have been murdered since the U.S. invaded in 2001. Whether you like Obama or not, or support his policy proposals, you have to admit that he’s not non-violent by any means. His is just a violence reserved for use by the ruling class. But I suppose that’s an acceptable form of violence, the kind that is ok when it’s “only” killing people of color in other countries.

There’s so much more to add to this, but I’m interested to hear other folks’ respond to the video.


  1. I don't have much to add, but I really enjoyed this post even without watching the video. I especially enjoyed your takedown of dude's paternalistic advice that black women find a 'good' man.

    Point #4 was sweet too.
    "What about Cheney and Halliburton?
    The backdoor deals
    On oil fields
    How's NaS the most violent person?"

  2. Jon, thanks for checking out the post, we're glad you liked it. There's definitely some folks out there who are making serious contributions to thinking about women of color in hip-hop, but unfortunately there are also quite a few who pass as progressive but really aren't offering much, like "Barack & Curtis".

    Good quote too, did you see Nas when he performed that song on The Colbert Report? Funny interview.

  3. You hit the nail right on the head. This film may contend to be about challenging sexism or materialism in hip-hop. At its core, though, it's about "good negro, bad negro": the idea that violence, mysoginy and materialism are some kind of pathology in the black community that needs to be broken down and replaced with a notion of "good behavior" as defined by the system itself. It's all bootstraps rhetoric, plain and simple.

    Hurt's previous work was much better at taking up sexism in a real way by displaying artists that are grappling with it in their music and lives. And now he's saying Michelle Obama is an example for black women because she can find a great guy?

    The black community and hip-hop don't need to be told how to behave. They need to chart their own course in fighting against racism and all oppressions, and that can only start by talking about their reality as it is now, not aspiring to some mainstream academic definition of success.

    In the end, this is a video intensely pessimistic about the prospect for ordinary people's ideas to change and for them to fight for a better system.