To what extent can Hip Hop be blamed for youth violence in the USA?

Posted on February 11, 2017

Hip Hop by definition is a subculture which involves rap music, graffiti, break dancing and DJing. Hip Hop culture is one of a young, urban, working-class African-American. Rappers tend to fit this description and represent a generally dismissed or underrepresented group who protect contemporary African-American working-class history and concerns.

I chose to research ‘To what extent can Hip Hop be blamed for youth violence in the USA?’ as I am very passionate about Hip Hop music and the culture surrounding it. I was aware of Hip Hop being seen negatively by many people due to some of its content and was intrigued to try and find out whether Hip Hop can be blamed for the violent behaviour of youths in the USA. I aimed my question at youth as they are very easily influenced and it is clear that Hip Hop is very popular in youth culture. I chose to focus my question in the USA as that is where Hip Hop was really shaped.

In my first section, I will be outlining the main events of Hip Hop history and its influences which have shaped it to how it is today. In my second section, I will be exploring the significance of the Hip Hop culture and music for young people and the positive impacts it has on them. Thirdly I will be exploring the links between Hip Hop and violence through sociological research and negative icons and events in the Hip Hop industry. In my last section, I will be questioning whether Hip Hop is to be blamed for youth violence or if there are other explanations. This is a relevant issue for me and my scholarship because I’m thinking of taking a Sociology course at university.

 History of Hip Hop in the USA 

Hip Hop can be traced back to an African oral tradition which is the idea of ‘Nommo’. ‘Nommo’ is the delivery of words to act upon objects. The idea that people share views, news, dreams and unhappiness through rapping are similar to another African tradition which is the idea of ‘Griots’, who are keepers of knowledge in tribal history. They are defined as storytellers or poets who spread knowledge in an easily accessible form. During the 1700 (peak time of African slave trade) rhyming games were used as forms of resistance to slavery. These rhyming games allowed slaves to use their thinking ability to provide inspiration and entertainment. Hip Hop also originated from many other forms of African- American music such as jazz, soul, gospel and reggae.

Hip Hop was shaped in the 1970s in New York and helped express black youth in areas like The Bronx, known as one of the poorest areas in New York. Hip Hop developed, and truly got a name for itself, in the 1970s by Jamaican-born musician Kool DJ Herc. He pioneered a turntable technique called the extended break, which is where a DJ can use a ‘breakbeat’ to create an extended, uninterrupted groove. ‘Emcees’, (master of ceremonies) meaning someone who speaks over a beat, started to introduce Dj’s by rapping, inspired by popular 60’s African American radio Disc Jockeys in New York, who introduced songs and artists with spontaneous rhymes. This became very popular during the 70s and the Hip Hop scene was dominated by people like Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa who all influenced Hip Hop culture significantly and helped shape it to how we know it today. Hip Hop’s first successful hit was in 1979, The Sugarhill Gang’s single, ‘Rapper’s Delight’. It is one of the most influential songs in Hip Hop and has been sampled countless times such as in ‘You Can Do It’ by Ice Cube. The increasing popularity of rhythmic music, b-boys, breakdancers, graffiti artists and MCs created Hip Hop culture.

NME describes the late 80s and early 90s as the ‘golden age of rap’. Instead of just rapping about an artist’s success, rapper began to write more about their rise to success and wrote about violence, crime and poverty. Even rappers who were financially stable before their music careers would create a persona, portraying themselves as thugs and gangsters. There was a high demand for this, and according to Rauly Ramirez, the manager of Billboard’s Hip-Hop Chart, this was, “the character [they] had to be to succeed”. The gangster theme was apparent in the majority of rap songs in the 90s, which prevented Hip-Hop from joining genres like Rock and Pop in the mainstream. Artists such as N.W.A, Ice T and Dr Dre introduced Gangsta Rap, defined as a subgenre of Hip Hop that focuses on violent lifestyles and impoverished conditions. Gangsta Rap artists were known for mixing political and social commentary with criminal elements. During the 90s the two distinct sub-genres which dominated mainstream Hip Hop for several years were West Coast and East Coast. G-funk took over a lot of the West Coast with artists like Warren G and Snoop Dogg. Most West Coast rappers were from Los Angeles. However, East Coast was taken over by Afrocentric jazz rap, such as artists like A Tribe Called Quest and The Fugees, and hardcore rap with artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious Big. East Coast rappers were usually from New York. West Coast and East Coast provided different styles and were, and still are, relatively separate. Hip Hop became a best-selling genre in the mid-1990s. Tensions grew between East and West, especially because of the famous feud between Christopher Wallace (The Notorious Big) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac) during the second half of the 90s, which resulted in the controversial shooting deaths of both of the artists between 1996-1997.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Hip Hop began to branch out and become more diverse, with other regional styles emerging on the national scene such as Southern Rap, apparent in artists such as OutKast. Hip Hop was the top selling music genre by 1999 and the popularity continued through the 2000s. Hip Hop influences were finding their way into mainstream pop. Starting in 2005, Hip Hop sales decreased by 44% in the US according to Billboard Magazine, leading many such as Time Magazine to question if Hip Hop was “dying”. Despite this, popularity did seem to continue, with Dr. Dre remaining an important figure. Rapper 50 Cent’s 2003 album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, produced by Dr.Dre, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 Charts.

Hip Hop today has evolved dramatically from its original form. There is less of a demand for gangsta rap and rappers like Drake and Kendrick Lamar have recreated the industry with bold moves successfully, for example, Drake’s If Your Reading This It’s Too Late was the first album in 2015 to sell more than 1 million copies. US Today claimed that 2015 was the year of Hip Hop. Hip Hop has become a wider genre as rappers are less reliant on factors like radio singles and promotion and are more invested in the art of the album as a whole. Social media has changed Hip Hop and arguably made it easier to access and get involved in, with websites such as Soundcloud which allows anyone to share their own music, and twitter which has been used a lot in the last couple of years for artists to reach out to their fans. Assistant Professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond Erik Nielson teaches classes in Hip Hop culture and says that audiences are hearing a “whole range of styles” and claims that, “Some of the major players that have dominated for a number of years — Jay Z, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne — they’re less influential than they were. What you’re seeing in some sense is not so much a changing of the guard, because they’re still really important in the industry, but it’s opened up this space for a bunch of new acts to enter the scene”. Whether Hip Hop has changed in a good way or bad is down to opinion, but Hip Hop has significantly changed in the last few decades.

Significance of Hip Hop culture/music to young people 

Hip Hop is significant to the African-American working class youth as it can be seen as an opportunity for economic and social power in their lives. In Hip Hop culture terms like ‘thug life’ defined by iconic 90s rapper 2Pac as ‘The Hate U Gave Lil’ Infants Fuck Everyone’ and ‘Nigga’ meaning ‘Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished’ are very popular and heard in many songs of the genre. For Hip Hop enthusiasts, these terms represent having nothing and still succeeding and overcoming obstacles to reach an aim. They are seen as a message of determination and empowerment even though to the wider public they seem to have negative connotations.

Hip Hop has a big influence on mainstream fashion, television and language and a huge role in young people’s and therefore record labels and artists have a huge responsibility. Crime data compiled by the FBI and Whitburn project has shown that as Hip Hop’s popularity has increased, crime in the US has fell, particularly when gangsta rap was popular. Many go as far to argue that Hip Hop should be taught in education because they see it as important to allow youth to see and experience the way Hip Hop is shaped (negatively and positively) by the business of the music industry. This gives the youth the knowledge to make an informed musical decision and even possibly change the music industry. Additionally, guns are a central role in lyrics of rappers and can be argued to be representing empowerment and achieve respect within racial and economically prejudice society.

Hip Hop also has significance in the music industry, according to ABC News, Hip Hop generates more than $10 billion per year. In 2011, Statistics show that Hip Hop was the most “liked” by U.S. college students on Facebook. There are several positive icons in the Hip Hop industry who get less exposure in mainstream media. Such as Kendrick Lamar who is strongly against the rap communities embrace of MDMA. He also recently received the key to his hometown Compton in LA for his positive message of unity between gangs and empowerment. For example, his line of red and blue classic Reebok shoes connote the message of unity between two notorious gangs in Compton, the Crips (blue) and Bloods (red). Early this year Kendrick Lamar also met with President Barack Obama to discuss the significance of mentorship for today’s youth.

Another positive icon in the Hip Hop industry is Tupac Shakur. Although was commonly portrayed as a criminal due to his portrayal in mass media and misinterpretation of lyrics, Tupac gave empowerment to the youth and explored subjects many popular artists failed to do successfully. He delivered powerful messages to his listeners, for example, one of Tupac’s earliest hits ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ which delivers a beautiful message. In the song he explores the struggles for women in poorer areas. He encourages women to not give up when there ‘deadbeat dads’ leave them with a child and tells the ‘real men’ to get up. He emphasises how men need to treat women better and that we need to set a better example for our younger generation, “since we all came from a woman…why we rape our women?… Time to heal our women, be real to our women”. Many other Tupac songs explore similar themes such as ‘Changes’ and ‘Brenda’s got a baby’.

Despite Hip Hop having a bad reputation in society for negative lyrics which seem to promote deviance, in the Hip Hop community lyrics are very important and vital for a song to gain success. Although the majority of Hip Hop songs which hit the mainstream charts have simplified and controversial lyrics, in the industry as a whole, many songs which are iconic and well recognised are due to their clever and meaningful content. For example NWA’s ‘Express Yourself’ which peak position was 2nd on the Us Hot Rap Songs.

Modern rappers such as J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore all have a reputation for having deep and meaningful lyrics which leave a message worth hearing. Such as Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege 2’ which analyses a range of racial issues from various perspectives.

Links with violence 

On the other hand, because of Hip Hop’s enormous role in young people’s lives, artists and record labels have a huge responsibility to deliver what sells. It is evident that there has been a massive shift in the demand since when Hip Hop started. Artists seem to be pushed to create music about sex, drugs and violence and lyrical content seems to have been dumbed down. For example in 1999 rapper Eminem performed his explicit song called ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ (about him killing his child’s mother and dumping her body into the ocean) at the MTV’s video music awards, televised across the USA. Many argue that the industry has embraced violent behaviour. Mississippi Senate Candidate Chris Mcdaniel said the rising gun violence was a function of Hip Hop culture. The problem with this is that many performers and labels take no responsibility.

The media mostly portrays Hip Hop with negative stereotypes and influences so youth accept these stereotypes as acceptable behaviour. Diamond, et al 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that Hip/Hop is the most popular genre of music for youth. Results showed that 65% junior and senior high school said they had listened to rap the day before. Smith (2005) found that young adults between the ages of 16 and 30 are the most likely age group to listen to Hip Hop music and therefore may become used to the derogatory lyrics and see violence and sexual aggression as acceptable. Additionally, the Social Cognitive Theory argues that people learn many things from observing other people’s behaviour. People observe whether others receive awards or punishments (weighing up the benefits and risks) which makes people more or less likely to do certain things. In the media, youth see their role models get away with crimes, which could motivate them to commit them themselves. For example, rapper/singer Chris Brown getting away with assaulting singer Rihanna.

According to youth violence statistics done by the Josephson Institute, In the US there has been a clear rise in youth violence. For example, murders committed by 18-25-year-olds has increased by 65% and large cities in the USA claim that 72% of their school violence is a consequence of gang activity. They found the years that violence increased is in correlation with the rise in commercial popularity of Hip Hop music. A national survey of inner-city black youth showed that 48% considered Hip Hop to be their favourite genre of music. Lack of acceptance and rejection from parents, teachers and overall society has contributed to Hip Hop being labelled as a deviant act.

In the media Hip Hop has a bad reputation for not only its violent lyrics but violent music videos which promote crime. For example Geto Boys 1989 ‘Mind of a Lunatic’ which not only has misogynistic lyrics about killing a woman but has a music video clearly showing the process. Studies show that media such as music videos are highly influential upon youth. Anderson et al 2003 study explored how youths interacted with other people after watching either a violent or nonviolent music video. They randomly assigned and assessed them using a scale; 1 meaning nonviolent behaviour and 10 meaning violent behaviour. Results showed that exposure to media violence had a strong association with aggression and violent behaviour within youths. Similarly in 2006 Elianna Tropeano analysed 33 undergraduate students. She split them up into three groups. A controlled group who did not watch anything, a group who watched a violent Hip Hop music video and a group who watched a nonviolent Hip Hop music video. Using a questionnaire, Tropeano concluded that participants who viewed the violent music video were negatively affected, and showed significant signs of aggression in comparison to the group who watched the nonviolent video.In 1992 Vimeiro and Paajanen also researched whether violent television does increase the aggressive behaviour of those who were exposed to it. They examined 391 8-10-year-olds boys and found a positive correlation for the boys between the tv variables and aggression. Other studies lean towards the idea that Hip Hop can be to blame for the increase in youth violence. A study done by the University of Dayton in 1999 on Male youth offenders from diverse ethnicities shows that 72% of them said that music influenced the way they feel.

According to sociologists Stanklewicz and Rossell, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has shown a ‘tremendous increase in the representation of violence against women, particularly sexual violence, in media’. Russo & Pirlott (2006) argue that Hip Hop has been glorifying violence against women since the late 1980’s but it is a bigger issue now. For example in 2001 Armstrong did a content analysis on 490 Hip Hop songs from 1987-1993. He found that 22% of the songs analysed contained lyrics with violence against women including rape, murder and assault. Although 22% does not seem to be a really worrying number, it could be argued that songs following these themes are usually in the top charts. For example, Ice Cube’s ‘Check Yo Self’ contains lyrics about “dropping bombs on your moms’ and ‘doing foul crime’ and was named one of the hottest Hip Hop and R&B tracks by Billboard in 1993.

However, a recent online survey done by college students, suggests that youth are not as interested in Hip Hop as we may be led to believe. Gretchen Cundiff, an undergraduate at Elon University, designed a survey to find out how college students perceive and respond to the issue of domestic violence and whether they feel popular hip hop music has positive or negative influences on their views. Her survey showed that 20% of the female students held a positive view on Hip Hop whereas no males did. 60% of males and 23.1% females held a negative view of Hip Hop. Both men and women agreed that the approval of violence against women is the most offensive aspect of lyrics in Hip Hop songs. These results suggest that youth are not as influenced by Hip Hop and its lyrics as much as we think and that the lyrics are not significant to every listener as although songs have misogynistic lyrics, women still enjoyed the songs. Therefore some may argue that because there is still an increase in youth violence, surely Hip Hop cannot be blamed.

A study carried out by Ordein T and Lewis MJ (2013) suggested that Hip Hop journalism is a potential source of influence for violent behaviours. They did a content analysis on 48 random The Source Magazine issues for the presence of violent content. Results showed that 35% of covers of the magazine had at least one violent category and almost 80% of feature articles contained at least one violent category in the text. Additionally, around 30% of feature articles had at least one violent photograph. Their results could lead to ambiguous conclusions. Either Hip Hop cannot be blamed, and the media ought to be blamed for giving Hip Hop a violent image or Hip Hop culture as a whole should be blamed, as The Source Magazine has the responsibility to promote Hip Hop (as it is a Hip Hop magazine). Some may argue that Hip Hop cannot help what the media covers, and that the media is biased and never shares the positive sides of the Hip Hop community.

 What do these links show? 

Although critics of Hip Hop argue that without Hip Hop the police could solve more street crimes and things would get better for the oppressed, others say that as long as people are living in poverty-stricken conditions crime will continue. They argue the system is too corrupt and putting more police on the streets and more people into prison will only amplify the problem.

To the wider audience, Hip Hop appears to be extremely violent when compared to other music genres. It can be argued that Hip Hop is so violent due to it stemming from a culture that has been fighting against oppression. For example, during an interview with Time, Kevin Powell ( American political activist who speaks against violence against women) explains how Hip Hop was formed during the times of the Civil Rights movement, ‘crack epidemic’ and Reagan Era (In 1980, conservative Ronald Reagan became president. although he helped recover confidence in America’s future, his presidency had major flaws, widening the gap between the rich and working class and worsening race relations) . Kevin Powell claims that although there was an economic boom, many black people were still significantly poor, “not too many Black people I know, even the ones with college degrees, are anything more than a paycheck away from poverty. Hip Hop has documented all of this”.

Hip Hop began as a response to national oppression and urban poverty in working class communities and is now seen as fundamental part of urban culture. In the 1970s there was a deindustrialization trend, meaning that factories closed and unemployment rates rose. There was a decline in living conditions for US workers (especially black workers), social programs were cut and life was generally harder for the urban working class. Corporations moved their manufacturing jobs to other countries so that they could exploit workers easier, leading to greater profits, but this left working class US workers who relied on those jobs in more poverty. With the absence of job opportunities, some turned to crime to survive. Crime offers a chance for a job with career advancement opportunities. Marxist argue that bourgeois politicians expanding prisons to take in the increasing numbers of unemployed workers. They conclude that these trends, have institutionalised poverty in black and latino communities and capitalism is to blame. Hip Hop reflects these existing trends, and some artists resort to glorifying crime for their own material gain. According to unemployment data by Remapping debate, in 2013 more than half of male African-American high school dropout are unemployed.

Some argue that corporations are not considered criminals even though they lay off workers and put them into poverty, they are just labelled as ‘doing business’. Similarly, rapper Ice Cube points out that politicians who blame Hip Hop for violence are extremely hypocritical as they kill on a worldwide level yet blame Hip Hop for small level violence in American culture, “We do things on a small level, but America does it on a big level. It ain’t just us”.

Others would argue that large conglomerates are to blame for the correlation between Hip Hop and violence as they have been the driving force behind shaping commercial Hip Hop based on what they think will sell. As mentioned before, many youths see the music industry as an escape and one of their only opportunities to gain wealth and fame as unlike other professions it is not bound by qualifications or experience. One problem with this is that the industry is operated by upper-class white men, meaning the young urban musicians are often used and taken advantage of. As violence is a popular theme, in order to be successful, artists are forced to create a persona as it’s their only way gain wealth and see some sort of empowerment.

Young people are constantly exposed to violence whether it’s in the news, films, video games or music. Many times in the media violent actions have no bad consequences, portraying criminal lifestyles as appealing. In conclusion, although there is evidence that suggests Hip Hop can be blamed for youth violence in the USA, there is also evidence to suggest video games are to blame for youth violence. Therefore Hip Hop can not be blamed fully as a lot of other factors clearly contribute. Maybe in the past, Hip Hop could be blamed but there has been a shift in the demand since the early 2000s and a lot of the research above is outdated. Although the Social Cognitive Theory suggests that in the media youth see artists get away with crimes and violent acts, there are several examples where Hip Hop artists have not got away with inappropriate behaviouro. For example, rapper Gucci Mane who spent 3 years in federal prison due to gun and drug charges.

As mentioned above, the demand in Hip Hop does seem to have changed since the early 2000s. For example in his song ‘Jesus Walks’ 2004, Kanye West confronts the issue that in the Hip Hop industry it’s acceptable to write songs about, ‘‘guns, sex, lies videotape. But if I talk about God my record won’t get played. Huh?’. Jesus Walks ended up reaching number 11 on the Billboard Top 100 and basically marked a turning point where the range of themes explored in popular Hip Hop music widened. Since then, Artists have proved that rapping about things other than sex and violence can make them successful. For example Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ which not only sticks to Hip Hop’s Jazz/Funk roots, but explores the following themes; faith, how American society views and treats African Americans, how African Americans view and treat their community and Lamar’s internal conflicts about creating art within a genre that can glorify violence and crime. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is known as one of the most significant albums of 2015, let alone just in the Hip Hop industry, and won Grammy for the best Hip Hop album. Furthermore, if Hip Hop’s themes have/or are beginning to shift away from violence, surely it cannot be fully blamed for youth violence which happens in today’s society.

What can we learn?

In conclusion, I think music usually reflects the existing trends in communities. For example, If someone is surrounded by violence in their day to day lives, there is no surprise that they share it in their music. Violence in Hip Hop most likely comes from the poverty, inequalities and everyday struggle these artists have experienced. The violent themes in Hip Hop could relate to the lives of and give the African-American working class youth a sense of empowerment, making the theme popular and forcing more artists to follow the trend in order to break out of their own struggle. In other cases people may perceive songs to be negative due to their language and sound from face value, not realising they have well developed and intellectual meanings/messages, leaving them to blame Hip Hop for violence. I believe that violence in the media could be one of many factors, such as upbringing, leading to someone to commit a crime.

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