Rap and Hip Hop are today a part of an important and essential identity and cultural phenomenon. It is also a fact that Rap and Hip Hop are now an important part of the lucrative music industry. It therefore, has a lot of commercial value as well. Many still see the phenomenon of Rap and Hip Hop from a social and cultural perspective, rather than as just a part of a mammoth commercial music industry. Still others see it is seen as a strong political tool as well, where it gives expression to the sentiments of the young African Americans.
There are some who question the cultural significance of Rap and Hip Hop music and are critical of the same, as they argue that the music contributes to negative attitudes towards women and also promotes aggressive or violent behaviour among young men. While there may be some merit in that argument, it is submitted that the merit is only of a limited value, because this argument does not take into consideration the immense social and political contribution of Rap and Hip Hop. Regardless, the assertion that Rap and Hip Hop music is misogynist or promotes misogynist or violent attitudes is worth considering.
This essay explores the phenomenon of Rap and Hip Hop music in order to answer the principal question: does Rap and Hip Hop promote negative perceptions towards women? Does Rap and Hip Hop encourage violence among young men.
In order to answer the question, the essay first discusses the cultural and political significance of Rap and Hip Hop and then delves into the principle questions raised in the essay. The issues of identity, peer pressure, are also explored in the essay.
Kitwana says that hip-hop is the major cultural movement of our times and is also a core influence for African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984 (Kitwana, 2008). Watts has called Gangsta rap as a cultural commodity (Watts, 2004). Travis says that hip-hop’s new cultural ambassadors are the new generation of individuals strengthened by their “own immersion and development in the culture” (Travis, 2016, p. 47).
These ideas and precepts are echoed across the length and breadth of literature that is available on the phenomenon of Rap and hip-hop. Yet, there are some who question the cultural values that are denoted within this music and rather they contend that Rap and hip-hop far from being the cultural phenomenon it is made out to be, is a negative influence on the young people as it fosters objectification of women and encourages violent behaviour among young men.
Giovachinni criticised the Gangsta Rap music of the 1980s and 1990s, because, in his opinion, “new music genre portrayed images of gangs, guns, violence, and sexism, yet it was well received and became very popular in the span of just a few years….. Some of the artists responsible for this were Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, both former members of N.W.A., Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and Ice-T. While each of these rappers showcased a unique style, the underlying messages in their work depicted acts of violence, discrimination, and sex in a way that made them appear commonplace and acceptable, when in fact they are not. The nature of gangster rap influenced society in a negative fashion, yet there was nothing that could legally be done to stop this” (Giovacchini, 1999).
One of the incidents that Giovacchini uses to bolster his contention is the shooting of a state trooper by Ronald Howard, when the latter was stopped and pulled over, Ronald was driving a stolen car at the time and the he had tapes of 2Pacalypse by Tupac Shakur, which he was listening to at the time, and also other such Gangsta Rap music cassettes that openly encouraged crime and was derisive of the police.
It is interesting that the wife and family of the slain officer Davidson too felt that the music that Ronald listened to was an influencing factor in the crime. Davidson's wife, Linda, along with her children, filed a suit against Tupac Shakur and the recording labels: Atlantic Recordings, Interscope Records, and Time Warner. An important question that was asked in the trial was that are artists legally accountable for the possible influence of their work? Despite the disgust that the judge openly felt for the music and what the judge thought it promoted, he could not rule in favour of the family of officer Davidson. Judge John D Rainey’s words are relevant here, and he said: "2Pacalypse Now is both disgusting and offensive. That the album has sold hundreds of thousands of copies is an indication of society's aesthetic and moral decay. However, the First Amendment became part of the Constitution because the Crown sought to suppress the Farmers' own rebellious, sometimes violent views. Thus, although the Court cannot recommend 2Pacalypse Now to anyone, it will not strip Shakur's free speech rights based on the evidence presented by the Davidsons" (Giovacchini, 1999).
Ogbar refers to the cultural debates that hip hop music gave way to, which involved “presidential candidates, congressmen and academics” who joined together to condemn hip-hop for its “violent, sexist and bigoted rap” (Ogbar, 1999, p. 164).
Kitwana says that largely because of rap music, Black faces have become recognisable in the mainstream media (Kitwana, 2008). She says that although the Black face has been central in sports, it has not resonated in public consciousness, as rap and hip hop has resonated. She says that the national exposure that was received by rap music thanks to the television and music industry, played a very important role in the way in which local cultural manifestations evolved over a period of time (Kitwana, 2008). The important aspect about rap and hip hop is that it gave commercial success to Black artists and fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in aspiring Black rap and hip hop artists. This was important in giving African Americans a voice in the national stage, making them more recognisable as members of a successful and rich community, rather than just minimum wage earners (Kitwana, 2008). In this way, rap became a cultural icon for the young African American community, especially men.
It is noteworthy that rap and hip hop also have a lot of political mileage and are not just cultural phenomenon. This is evident from the Rap Mogul Russel Simmon’s announcement in 2000 that he would turn his attention to the use of rap and hip hop to bring the new African American generation into mainstream politics (Kitwana, 2008). That he would say this during the 2000 presidential campaign is very relevant here. That he would make this announcement, 8 years before America went on to elect Barack Obama, the first African American president of the US, is poignant. Could it be that rap and hip hop played a role in synthesising the African American community and propelling them into a nationally recognisable force that found a resonance in the political climate? Simmons efforts have been considered to be the most high-profile attempt at bringing the hip hop generation of young African Americans into the mainstream politics. Because Simmons is also a
music mogul, the obvious involvement of rap and hip hop in the effort is inevitable. However, even if rap and hip hop have been able to achieve the bringing together of national identity, pride and political progress of the young African Americans, that would not exonerate it from the charge of being encouraging of misogyny and violence, if the music does exert that kind of impact on its listeners.
Dysan says that “From the very beginning of its recent history, hip-hop music—or rap, as it has come to be known—has faced various obstacles. Initially, rap was deemed a passing fad, a playful and ephemeral black cultural form that steamed off the musical energies of urban black teens. As it became obvious that rap was here to stay, a permanent fixture in black ghetto youths’ musical landscape, the reactions changed from dismissal to denigration, and rap music came under attack from both black and white quarters” (Dyson, 2004, p. 61).
What Dysan says is important because it portrays the journey of rap and hip hop from the music of the Black ghettos, to the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. Rap and hip hop has not only propelled African American culture to the national stage, it has also created visibility for the African American cultural form throughout the world.
Undoubtedly, the initial expressions of rap and hip hop music and culture were experimental in nature, however over a period of time, rap “began to describe and analyze the social, economic, and political factors that led to its emergence and development: drug addiction, police brutality, teen pregnancy, and various forms of material deprivation” (Dyson, 2004, p. 61). Rap gave voice and expression to the deep felt thoughts of the urban African youth, especially males in their adolescence and early twenties. These thoughts and perceptions were also the result of the deep seated societal prejudices that these young men lived with and experienced. These prejudices included racial profiling and a general perception of the troubled and criminal tendencies of the young urban African American male.
Rap became an important form of expression for the African youth and it found resonance and power due to the fact that it could be related to easily as it voiced the general feelings if these young men. However, over a period of time, the music also became powerful in terms of its commercial value and outreach.
Criticising the unnecessary negativity that is given to rap music, Dyson says that such reactions “betray a shallow understanding of rap, which in many cases results from people’s unwillingness to listen to rap lyrics, many of which counsel anti-violent and antidrug behavior among the youths who are their avid audience. Many rappers have spoken directly against violence, such as KRS-One in his “Stop the Violence” (Dyson, 2004, p. 63).
This is an important aspect of the music that gets lost due to the negative reactions that it generally receives due to the popularity of some rap and hip hop stars who indulge in promoting misogyny and violence in the content of their lyrics. This leads to the overshadowing of the other rap and hip hop artists whose music though of the same genre, does not promote or indulge in themes of misogyny and violence.
Misogynistic themes have not always been part of popular music, however, these themes first emerged prominently in rap and hip-hop music in the late 1980s, when the themes revolved around portrayal of women as sex objects and/or victims of sexual violence (Adams & Fuller, 2006).
One of the first important studies conducted into the content of hip-hop and rap music involved a content analysis of 490 rap songs from 1987 to 1993 (Armstrong, 2001). The study found that 22% of these songs had content that related to violence against women including assault, rape and murder (Armstrong, 2001). His study is important because it classified rap songs into different categories based on the level of misogyny or violence that was encouraged in the content. The categories included those in which rappers pride themselves on sex acts appearing to harm women; seem to invite male violence against women; justify other acts of violence; warn women against challenging male domination with the threat of assault (Armstrong, 2001).
However, the question does arise, even if some part of hip-hop music is bigoted, sexist or violent, would it be true to say that the music does promote negativity about women, or violent behaviour? This can only be answered with the help of a quantitative research methodology, because other than that there are only perceptions that are being expressed by some members of the society, prominent or otherwise.
The impact of media on audience perceptions has been studied in some studies. The cultivation theory is important here as it was developed by George Gerbner (Gerbne, et al., 1994). Gerbner’s focus was on television content, and he studied how audience exposure to violence on television shaped their own conception of social reality (Rosenberry & Vicker, n.d., p. 165). Gerber et al said: “when people are exposed to media content or other socialization agents, they gradually come to cultivate or adopt beliefs about the world that coincide with the images they have been viewing or messages they have been hearing” (1994, p. 22). Gerbner developed cultivation theory by examining how long- term exposure to violent media messages alters audience perceptions of violence in their everyday lives (Rosenberry & Vicker, 2009). The cultivation theory would posit that the people who listen to rap and hip-hop would be affected by the violent and misogynist messages that they receive from the music. Based on this, another researcher, Cundiff, has conducted a quantitative research into the question and her findings are relevant here (Cundiff, 2013).
Cundiff’s research was conducted with the help of a qualitative content analysis and online survey. College students were the respondents of the survey and the objective of the research was to gather data to help understand how the college students perceive and respond to the portrayal of women when exposed to misogynistic lyrics. The lyrical content of popular rap and hip-hop songs Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart between 2000 and 2010, was analysed by the researcher. The songs chosen contained demeaning language, content on rape/sexual assault, sexual conquest and physical violence. The study found that of the respondents who participated in the survey, both men and women found the legitimation of violence against women to be the most offensive aspect of misogynistic lyrics in rap/hip-hop songs. The attributes of misogynist lyrics that were the most derogatory were the sexual objectification of women; derogatory naming of women; and the derogatory shaming of women (Cundiff, 2013).
Even more important are the results that showed that the majority of respondents showed high levels of concurrence with the perception that rap and hip-hop music encourages disrespectful and misogynist attitudes toward women. Many respondents believed that most rap and hip-hop music is suggestive of women being just for male sexual satisfaction (Cundiff, 2013). As far as cultural significance or political significance of rap and hip-hop is concerned, almost 75 per cent of respondents felt that rap and hip-hop music does not provide any positive or cultural messages for its listeners (Cundiff, 2013). Majority of the respondents answered in positive that rap and hip-hop music promotes aggressive and violent behaviors toward women. 50 per cent of the respondents concurred that rap and hip-hop music glorifies the domestic violence against women perpetrated by men (Cundiff, 2013).
Michael Eric Dyson (2010) says that the misfortune of Rap and Hip Hop is that many “White pundits and journalists only seem to bring up Hip Hop’s vastly harmful role in spewing venom towards Black women when it suits the White media and political purposes” (Dyson, 2010, p. 123). While Dyson is critical of the mainstream media’s selective discussion on misogyny in the Rap music, he is also critical of those Rap and Hip Hop stars, such as Snoop Dog, for instance, who do betray a rather negative attitude towards Black women. This is even more remarkable when compared with the otherwise idolatry that the same stars reserve for their mothers, while at the same time, a derogatory attitude is seen towards young African American women who also happen to be mothers. He says that “the relentless attack on young Black mothers in Hip Hop spreads vicious myths and stereotypes about young Black mothers. It also reinforces their social fragility” (Dyson, 2010, p. 130).
An interesting take on Rap and Hip Hop and violence is seen in the work of John McWhorter, who is admittedly a fan of Hip Hop, and also admits to the negative attitude that Hip Hop sometimes does reinforce about women (Whorter, 2008). At the same time, he reasons that listening to violent music should not mean that people would indulge in acts of violence because that is akin to saying that people should start stabbing others after seeing a bull fight (Whorter, 2008).
Ultimately, it can be said that there is evidence that certain Rap and Hip Hop artists do include misogynist and violent lyrics in their songs. However, to say that such lyrics lead to people becoming more misogynist and violent needs to be backed by more evidence. At the same time, it is important to remember that Rap and Hip Hop also has lot of social, cultural and political significance for the African American society.
Hip-hop and rap are cultural and social phenomena, as well as being a part of the mammoth music industry, that is worth billions of dollars today. There is little doubt that the music plays a significant role in the lives of the people who listen to it. At the same time, it is a difficult proposition to hold the music responsible for the acts of its listeners because proving that aspect of the music’s impact is difficult from a qualitative and quantitative point of view.
There are many who believe that rap and hip-hop demonstrate the cultural or political power of the African American community. These writers and academics believe that the music plays a significant role in shaping the cultural strength of the community.
On the other hand, there are many critics of the music who believe that the music does promote attitudes of misogyny, objectification of women, encouragement of sexual, physical and domestic violence against women. Critics also believe that rap and hip hop fosters violent behaviour in young men and encourages them to commit crime. In particular, there is a significant amount of content against the police in rap and hip hop. Due to this, the music is thought to be a bad influence, especially for young and impressionable men.
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