Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Future Public Media >> Documents >> Field Reports >> Field Report--Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

Field Report--Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

by Barbara Abrash, Director of Public Programs
Center for Media, Culture and History
New York University


Byron Hurt This is the first in a series of "field reports" that the Center for Social Media will be producing in 2008. Designed to provide concise, targeted explorations of innovative media projects for public knowledge and action, the field reports will inform the center’s larger Future of Public Media project, funded by the Ford Foundation. Research for this field report was completed in March 2007 by Barbara Abrash, the director of public programs for the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, and a research fellow at the Center for Social Media.

This field report demonstrates how a social issue documentary film campaign can serve as a test bed for innovations that support civic dialog and expand the spaces and practices of public media. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (Hip-Hop) is a personal film that examines representations of gender roles in hip-hop and rap music through the eyes of filmmaker Byron Hurt. A hip-hop enthusiast and former college quarterback turned activist, Hurt was inspired to make the film in 1999, because he was struck by the misogyny, homophobia and violence of videos featured in a countdown on BET’s Rap City. Having earlier made a documentary on black masculinity, he decided to craft a "loving critique" that would encourage men and boys to take a frank look at hip-hop music and themselves.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006 and was broadcast on the Independent Television Service (ITVS) national PBS series Independent Lens in February 2007, reveals hip-hop at a complex intersection of culture, commerce and gender through video clips and interviews with well-known and aspiring rappers, entrepreneurs, cultural critics, activists and fans. Using hip-hop culture as a platform to stimulate a national conversation about increasingly materialistic and sexually explicit American culture, it was part of a far-reaching strategic outreach campaign, with a special emphasis on organizations serving young people of color.

Background and mission:

Hurt was initially drawn to documentary in college, inspired by filmmakers like Marlon Riggs and Orlando Bagwell, as well as such films as Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James). In 1994, Hurt produced and directed I Am A Man: Black Masculinity in America, a documentary arising from his experiences as an African American college student. The film was not the success he had hoped for, and he apprenticed himself to veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson to improve his skills.

Hip-Hop picked up where I Am A Man left off, guided by Nelson—who became the film’s executive producer—and Marcia Smith of Firelight Media. Hurt’s goal was to make an informative and entertaining film, but also a catalyst for social change. A co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention at the Center for Sports and Society at Northeastern University, he had become keenly aware of the self-destructive effects of narrow representations of manhood and how he personally had been socialized. For him, credibility was key to reaching his intended audience: "I wanted to make it for people who knew and understood hip-hop," he said.

Filming, editing and outreach planning took place from 2004 to 2005. The film was first shown at the January 24, 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and first broadcast on PBS’s ITVS Independent Lens, February 20, 2007. In addition, a multi-platform outreach effort included several partners, noted below. ITVS, which provided major funding support, launched an outreach campaign designed to engage young people in critical thinking about the tangle of masculinity, gender violence and media, working through local youth organizations to enhance outreach. The film was also seen as a way to bring young, diverse audiences to PBS. In addition to multi-platform promotion and a well-stocked website that featured a downloadable education guide, ITVS provided outreach grants to five local PBS stations to engage with related local organizations and gather audience responses.

Funding model:

Hip-Hop was co-produced by God Bless the Child Productions, Inc. and ITVS in association with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), and depended almost entirely on subsidies from nonprofit organizations with a keen interest in issues of race, sexuality and popular culture. While the film was made available for educational and home distribution, this may be regarded as ancillary income rather than part of a sustainable business model. Funders included:

Funder Year Amount Purpose
NBPC 2001 $50,000 Production
ITVS 2003 $291,612 Production/editing
  2003 $40,000 Outreach
Ford Foundation 2005 $50,000 Completion (Sundance)
  2006 $175,000 Post-production/outreach
CPB National Programming Outreach Fund 2007 $200,000 Outreach through PBS local stations
21st Century Foundation 2007 $5,000 Post-broadcast outreach

Project Partners:

Hurt produced and directed the film in collaboration with co-producer/editor Sabrina Schmidt Gordon and executive producer Stanley Nelson. Hip-Hop features interviews with aspiring rappers, hip-hop entrepreneurs, social critics and fans, along with clips from the television shows and music videos that use the derogatory language of misogyny, homophobia, and hypermasculinity.

Realizing that commercial rights to the music videos and broadcast clips in the film would be expensive, Hurt turned to the guidelines set out in the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, (Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide, American University, 2005.) Hurt, consulting with a loose network of lawyers and media advisors, edited the film according to fair use principles.

The film’s outreach team was headed by ITVS and Firelight Media, in partnership with Hurt’s God Bless the Child Productions, Inc. and the National Black Programming Consortium; the team slowly introduced the film to broadcasters, service providers, and media makers. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America —primary service providers to young people of color in the U.S.—stepped up to lead the national campaign. PBS president Paula Kerger later supported the film at the National Outreach conference, which led to participation in the Television Critics’ Press Tour and helped garner publicity.

ITVS’s Dennis Palmeri and Firelight’s Sonya Childress led the National Community Engagement Campaign to incorporate national partners, local broadcast stations, screenings and websites using the ITVS outreach template. Center for Race, Politics and Culture, Youth Movement Records, GenderPac and the Women of Color Resource Center were among the sixteen national partners, brought together in the months leading up to the campaign.

In response to a need for streaming video, ITVS offered two-minute clips of the film on Current TV, created a branded YouTube channel and placed a "Community Voices" section on the Hip-Hop campaign website. Partner organization Uth TV sponsored a rap video contest; Youth Movement Records offered website space for submitting tracks.

Publics for this Project:

Hurt’s goal was to get men and boys to take a frank look at hip-hop music and themselves; several different initiatives targeted this core group. NBPC-sponsored summer screenings drew audiences in city parks. ITVS distributed 1,000 DVDs and 75,000 large-size postcards to educators, community organizers and partner organizations and mounted a national press campaign.

The film has an ability to bring diverse groups together to discuss contentious issues. It has made a distinct contribution in its ability to provide a bridge between heterosexual male groups and others. The original broadcast was not successful in drawing large numbers of young people of color, but through the strategic outreach campaign it connected positively with audiences that public broadcasting rarely reaches.

While young people of color were a target audience, the program also attracted the interest of small Midwest stations, which saw its broader appeal to young white men, women with children, and teachers.



ITVS faced a challenge in framing the presentation of controversial content to public broadcasting stations and the press. They had difficulty determining prudent limits on imagery and language. In response, the outreach team introduced the film slowly and solicited feedback about problems with the material and what it would take to make the film acceptable and useful in their programs.

Difficulties with distribution and multiplatforming:

When the outreach campaign engaged in digital initiatives, efforts from pbs.org and individual stations to stream video, generate content and use other web 2.0 components fell flat from lack of backend capability (In contrast, the Uth TV project and YouTube worked well). Sut Jhally, director of the Media Education Foundation, also notes that the project now lacks funding to distribute its recently released DVDs to underserved schools.

Fair use concerns:

With the amount of music videos and clips portrayed in the film, Hip-Hop could have run into copyright issues. But Hurt was aware of his rights to quote from music videos for critical and illustrative purposes. Reinforcing his usage, fortunately, was the just-created Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices. Using this as a guide in the last few weeks before the Sundance Film Festival of 2006, Hurt released the film there and won airtime from ITVS, which endorsed the Statement. There have been no legal challenges and the film stands as a model for future applications of fair use.


Despite its challenging subject matter, Hip-Hop had 94% carriage in the top 50 markets. It was seen by more than one million viewers and was one of the most repeated Independent Lens shows of the season. The broadcast received a 1.2 rating or higher in eight of the top fifteen markets, including Chicago, Seattle, and Phoenix, and in some markets drew large numbers of women and younger viewers. In addition:

  • The film was not only chosen to be the ITVS National Community Outreach Campaign’s featured show of the season, but at the PBS Spring Programmers meeting, Hip-Hop was officially announced as the 2007 ITVS "pop out" show
  • With PBS support, Hip-Hop was invited to participate in the Television Critics’ Press Tour
  • KQED trained 110 high school teachers and developed curricular materials available for download on ITVS Classroom.
  • 150 local Boys and Girls Clubs sponsored events using "all-audience" screening kits specially prepared by ITVS.
  • ITVS-sponsored Community Cinema screenings in 40 locations were attended by 5,200 people at standing-room only events, many with panels, facilitated discussions or performances.
  • A community forum sponsored by the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans drew a crowd so large a second program had to be scheduled.
  • A Dec. 24, 2006 New York Times article about ITVS-sponsored Chicago Community Cinema screening and discussion for 300 high-school students did not appear in the newspaper’s entertainment section and was written by a cultural reporter rather than a television critic.
  • As of March 2007, 2,000 DVDs had been sold to colleges and universities, for courses in sociology, media literacy, cultural studies, gender studies and African-American culture.
  • The campaign has provided a framework for civic dialog that is relevant to the public controversy that has recently engaged Russell Simmons, Anderson Cooper, Rev. Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey, among others.


  • Sundance Film Festival Official Section (2006)
  • American Black Film Festival Miami, Florida (2006)
  • National Hip-Hop Political Conventio, Chicago (2006)
  • Jackie Robinson Park, Harlem, NY July (2006)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival (July-August, 2006)
  • Roxbury Film Festival, Boston (July 2006)
  • WBAI – Ethical Cultural Center, New York (August 2006)
  • Herbert Von King Park, Brooklyn, NY, (August 2006)
  • Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, NY, (August 2006)
  • The 3rd Annual Girl Fest Hawaii, Honolulu, (September 2006)
  • San Francisco Black Film Festival, (2006)
  • Best Documentary, Roxbury Film Festival Award Winner (2006)
  • AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring, Maryland (February 2007)
  • Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Official Selection
  • Hot Docs International Film Festival, Official Selection
  • Atlanta Hip Hop Festival Official Selection
  • Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival Official Selection.

Additional measures of success:

 Statistics that enumerate broadcast ratings, community screenings, web downloads, press coverage, DVD sales, etc are a familiar and useful method of measuring the success of documentary films. Statistics do not measure, however, the value and impact of expanded opportunities, practices and spaces of public media.

Hip-Hop was at the center of an outreach strategy designed to fortify the infrastructure and relationships essential for sustainable public discussion of those issues and engaging audiences that do not customarily watch PBS. Evaluation must therefore extend to the durability of the networks of national partners, the results of local collaborations, and the resource materials that continue to sustain open public conversation and social action and extend them beyond current public broadcasting demographics. Further research is needed.

Next steps:

The ITVS national Community Engagement Campaign ended a month after the broadcast, leaving behind a website well-stocked with issue briefs, discussion guides and curriculum, as well as a network of national partners and models for local engagement. Byron Hurt continues to visit Historically Black Colleges and Universities campuses and communities and Firelight Media continues to build on the broadcast campaign and expand strategic outreach.

Lessons Learned

  1. Mentorship and a supportive media community are crucial elements in the development of mission-driven filmmakers and the dissemination of their work.
  2. Broadcast is an effective platform for multi-faceted, multi-sited public discussion of racially and sexually charged, generationally divided controversial issues, if it is part of well-conceived strategic outreach campaign.
  3. Strategic outreach campaigns with strong content and well-developed materials expand the spaces and practices of public media by:
    • providing scaffolding for sustainable civic dialog beyond broadcast, across cultures and generations;
    • convening national and local organizations capable of carrying forward the work around issues stimulated by a film;
    • engaging underserved audiences and others not drawn to PBS broadcast; and
    • creating multiple opportunities for public engagement and action.