Hip Hop’s Influence on Popular Culture: Expression or Oppression? Essay

Hip-Hop’s Influence on Popular Culture: Expression or Oppression?

Hip-hop is most definitely a massive influence on current culture all through the world.  Mainstream radio stations in America and abroad regularly play this genre of music while commercials, video games, and many other venues are utilizing the music to promote brands and entertain.  But, hip-hop is a relatively new form of music and it’s evolution has not revealed a perfect synthesis of what this type of music could be as a form of expression and entertainment that is as distinctively socially conscious as it is diverse.

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  The melody, the bass, and rhyme are all very attractive musical elements of hip-hop, however the elements of sexism and violence have caught the eye of many scholars and activists.  The themes that dominate much of the hip-hop culture are extremely “macho” and misogynist and, though, many may see this as a form of entertainment, the messages may become mainstream in the hip-hop community.

  So it is important to look at not only the music, but the message contained in the medium to determine if hip-hop is merely musical expression or oppression.

From the earliest recorded musical works, women have been the topic of love and loss, hate and objectification.  To say that hip-hop was the first art to condemn or criticize the gender as a whole would be as unfair and as it untrue.  Feminist scholars have usually been the most upfront and vocal about the unfair labels placed on women in music and other art forms and this is evident from centuries of oppression and expression. But today more African American scholars, activists, and listeners are coming out to call for hip-hop reform, especially in the rap industry.  This shows the importance of reform as not just a women’s issue, but an issue that is potentially effecting an entire culture negatively.  It is within  hip-hop music that women are objectified as hyper-sexual and their male counterparts, through musical articulation, proclaim them to be a mere commodity to be once used and then later discarded.  Although this topic has been on the forefront of many panels, discussions, and featured in several documentaries, the harm that has been done to a generation of listeners could be hypothesized as huge and an investigation into this possibility is important.

The degeneration of families and the maximalist rift between the sexes would be difficult to measure as an effect of this type of music, but it seems quite possible that this may be part of a continuing divide of families in the black community and may fit in as a microcosm of larger social problems.  Violence and aggression are prominent in many genres of music, including but not limited to rap and hip-hop.  The alarming issue is how much more violent it is becoming and what it is doing to its audience.  Though there are continuing criticisms of the negativity of violent video games and graphic films on young people, it is the fact that hip-hop is so vital to a specific culture that makes this problem most distressing.  To put it simply, any group of young people can and will be exposed to video games and other types of visual media, but hip-hop is as much a culture as it is an art form, therefore the contents of hip-hop music are more important and have more implications than other criticized media.

It is important, then to define what hip-hop is as a culture and an art form as many may not understand that it is truly both.

Hip-Hop culture is about self-definition and shaking off the labels that are forced upon by certain members of our society. Yet, one attempting to define Hip-Hop might begin with Rap music. Rap music is a cultural expression, where through rhymed lyrics, the artist tells his story, making Rap a way of preserving memory… It is widely accepted that Rap began in South Bronx, NY as a part of the growing Hip-Hop cultural movement of the time. Tricia Rose, in her influential book Black Noise writes that “Rap music is black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from

the margins of Urban America …From the outset,

Rap music has articulated the pleasures and problems

of Black urban life in contemporary America.”(Howard, 2001).

It is interesting that rap is characterized as a form of story-telling in the hip-hop community.  This may be misleading, however, because many may look at stories as being fictional and, therefore, strictly entertainment.  Though the songs may be especially good for dancing with the upbeat tempo and bass that is part of the genre, it can be compared to the psychological phenomenon of classical conditioning, whereas young people, who listen to the music for the instrumental sound may begin coupling the words and associating both as being “good” or positive.  Huitt and Hummel describe the process of classical conditioning as “in classical conditioning no new behaviors are learned. Instead, an association is developed (through pairing) between the NS [Neutral Stimulus] and the US [Unconditioned Stimulus] so that the animal/person responds to both events/stimuli (plural) in the same way”.  For these purposes the music would be the unconditioned stimulus and the lyrics would be the neutral stimulus.  If the two are paired, then, it is simple to say that both the words and the rhythm would be liked.  There would be no way to like the music and not like the lyrics.

So for both those in the hip-hop community and those that merely listen to the music, problems may arise.  It is likely that listeners, who do not identify with the characters in the songs will see them as such, merely characters in a fictional story.  Much of what non-marginalized groups hear then, they may interpret as creative tales that do not reflect upon the black community, creating an even bigger divide in understanding that specific culture and their narratives.  However, those who do live in a marginalized group and/or the hip-hop community may accept the music as truth and use this as a barometer for their own relationships and lives.  It is members of these groups, who have stepped forward to proclaim that, though the negative treatment of women is a part of urban African American life in many cases, these rappers must be role models.

The representation of women in gangsta rap music is certainly one of the most alarming aspects of the genre. Snoop Dogg’s famous saying “still don’t love them hoes” can be found in nearly every song he has made since his debut in the early 1990’s. Artist Jay Z is probably most known for his characteristic style of “pimping them

hoes”, as exemplified in a verse excerpted from his song “Big Pimpin”…Speaking of women as commodities, “b****es”, “hoes” and “gold diggers” has been the status quo in popular gangsta rap music for a decade, and the content is only becoming more and more denigrating. (Strings, 207-208).

It should be made abundantly clear, however, that not only the artists, who use negative

words that either encourage oppressing women or promote violence, but the hip-hop

community as a whole, who must take action.

Though this alarm is echoing throughout may academic and social circles, it is important not to demonize the rap industry as introducing violence, vice, and sexual objectification of women.  It is an issue that needs to be addressed as to its current effects, but, as stated earlier women have been objectified since the onset of art as an aesthetic pleasure.  It is not about music, as much as it is about vice and the lifestyles led that promote and encourage it.  Leo Tolstoy reflected on this very issue as early as 1890 in the novella, The Kreutzer Sonata.

Fashionable dress to-day, the course of reading, plays, music, dances, luscious food, all the elements of our modern life, in a word, from the pictures on the little boxes of sweetmeats up to the novel, the tale, and the poem, contribute to fan this sensuality into a strong, consuming flame, with the result that sexual vices and diseases have come to be the normal conditions of the period of tender youth, and often continue into the riper age of full-blown manhood. And I am of opinion that this is not right.

It is very interesting to note, then, that vice has always been an issue, as has oppression and the manner in which society, as a whole promotes or prohibits certain behaviors is of great importance.  As in Tolstoy’s day of the vice of music, dance, and the many elements that led to a “consuming flame”, there are elements of current culture that are so consuming (in the sense that so many consumers want the products) that even negative vices and things that lead to what Tolstoy most probably referred to as social disease continue.

Research has proven that exposure to violent lyrics do create heightened thoughts and feelings in young people, although music should never be used as a scapegoat and this is not the scope of this paper.  Censorship or an outright ban on music, similarly is not the intention of the data analysis and discussion.  The important mater at hand is the hip-hop community and the possible damage that is being done to families and communities when Black narratives are exploited for so-called entertainment.  Anderson, Carnagey & Eubanks make reference to two important studies that link both rap and heavy metal to a myriad of problems.

[It was] found that college students who preferred rap and heavy metal music reported more hostile attitudes than students who preferred other genres of music, such as alternative, adult contemporary, dance–soul, or country. Listeners to heavy metal music held more negative attitudes toward women. Rap music fans were more distrustful. Similarly [it was] found a correlation between preference for rap and heavy metal music and below-average academic performance, school behavior problems, drug use, arrests, and sexual activity (2003).

It would be hard to say then, whether rap and heavy metal seemed to be the cause or one

of the effects of the many social problems mentioned.  In other words, it may be that

people, who prefer rap music already have a predisposition to problems and not that the

music somehow served as a trigger.  The aforementioned research did mention a need for further research on this issue.

Since there are plausible, but not a completely factual basis in believing that hip-hop/rap music causes aggression or other problems, it cannot be denied that it is an element in many songs and the hip-hop lifestyle, in accordance to how it is portrayed in this music is glamorized for better or for worse.  A popular song by the artist Ludacris illustrates the violent, though sometimes humorous narratives in his song “Get Back”.

That’s why I pack a mack, that’ll crack a back, cause on my waist, there’s more heat than the shaq-attack! But I ain’t speakin’ about ballin’, jus’ thinkin’ about brawlin’ ’til y’all start ballin’…Maann, cause I don’t wanna do that. I wanna have a good time and enjoy my Jack.. sit back and watch some women get drunk

Though most of the songs by artist and actor Ludacris have an element of humor to them,

this may create a dynamic of classical conditioning, as mentioned before.  In this why

violence not only sounds good, but it is humorous.  Ludacris, himself, with all his fame

and success as an actor seems to be one of the most prominent members of the hip-hop

community, who should be advocating for better relations with others.  The most obvious

relationships that are in dire need of repair are with the men and women in the hip-hop

community, however.

Women and young girls in this community are especially vulnerable to the misunderstanding of this media as mere entertainment.  Similarly, young boys, who look to members of the hip-hop community may believe that the way to treat women is the way that relationships are depicted in the music they listen too.  It may be possible that musicians and others are their only role models, if they are living in single mother led homes.  The idea, though, that this is just a Black phenomenon should be discounted, however, as many young men from all ethnicities that grow up without a father present will look to any role model that seems to suggest success and power.  However, the use and abuse of power over women can only be negative.  The University of Chicago Magazine featured an article that highlighted the need for hip-hop reform, because of its negative influence on young girls due to the objectification of women in songs and videos.

“I love hip hop, but I feel at times that hip hop doesn’t love me back,” began Tamika Guishard, a documentary filmmaker and seventh-grade school teacher in New York City. Inspired after noticing the music’s impact on her female students, she made the eight-minute film Hip Hop Gurlz to investigate both the misogyny in videos and their effect on young women.  “It seems like hip-hop videos today only use a beat, a few lyrics, and some objectified women,” Guishard said. She stressed that young girls digest those messages. “How do you as a woman identify with hip hop if you are being talked about in a certain way?” she asked, referring to hip-hop artists commonly calling women “hos, tricks, and bi*ches”  (University of Chicago).

That is the most important aspect of analyzing this genre of music, the effects of the negative objectification of women on young girls and the encouragement on young men to treat women as sub-human beings.

Jay-Z is another prominent member of the hip-hop community who has alienated and angered young women, who have began speaking out for reform.  In one of Jay-Z’s songs “Bit***s and Sisters” he puts women in two categories, claiming he loves sisters, but hates b*****s.  Although he tries to show that he has some respect for some types of women Jay-Z objectifies even the ones that he claims to respect.

Sisters get respect, b****es get what they deserve
Sisters work hard, b****es work your nerves
Sisters hold you down, b****es hold you up
Sisters help you progress, b*****s will slow you up

(2002).

So, then the objectification of women is a set-up for disaster.  With low self-esteem from many young African-American girls, who are raised listening to this type of music, the idea of a strong family will become more of a myth and the idea of never being “good enough” or stable enough in their relationships will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  For young men, identifying with this type of music, the machismo and bravado that accompanies rap music, such as Jay-Z’s work will become part of their persona and they could be labeled as more feminine if they do not succumb to the rap lifestyle.  The rift between the two genders will become wider and family problems more prominent if this type of objectification continues.  But, it does appear that those affected most by this negative form of expression are coming together to bring this issue to light for those, who are not aware of its implications.

It seems that there is no easy way to go about reforming the hip-hop music industry, because in doing so an entire culture would be changed.  However, it seems that the same glamorized lifestyle of the street “hustler” is much the same on a larger scale with capitalist interests creating and maintaining markets that include violence and misogyny.  A simple idea of boycotting certain types of hip-hop media is not as easy as it may have been in the 1990’s, when this issue was at the forefront of many discussions, as parents were upset over all negative music lyrics and demanded a parental advisory be out on all material with questionable language.  However, now with internet access and other means to obtain and listen to music, this would be pointless, although it is interesting to look at what happened from the 1990’s to now and why negative lyrics are not in the forefront of discussion.  Steve Wishnia in his article “Parental Advisory: Explicit History, Sexually explicit music is as American as apple pie. (And as old.)” does illustrate how the Christian Right did seem to take issue with rap lyrics in the 1990’s, but their campaign did little to stop album sales.  Interestingly enough, he comments on the fact that music and censorship, especially with Blacks and especially in the South has been an issue since the inception of R&B.

This music existed mainly in the rural South, urban ghettoes, and red-light districts, but like a cultural hard-on pushing against the cloth of puritanism and segregation, double-entendre R&B oozed into the mainstream with the rise of rock‘n’roll in the early ‘50s, with songs like Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man.”

It is fair to say then that the Black experience and the narratives of music that evolved

into hip-hop has always been counter-culture and objected to by the Christian right.  Attempts to change their music and style even if it were to improve relations between men and women and possibly mitigate violence would change the expression.

The expression of this music is more than just the music and the lyrics, it is an attempt to keep together the cultural institution that has been a part of the history of all traditionally Black music, making it more “acceptable” or “mainstream” would potentially do more damage than it would go in keeping with history and the narrative form of story-telling through music.  Although there is concern with the violence and anti-female laden lyrics, what would the hip-hop community lose if they were to suddenly become more easily labeled?  All of the potentially negative labels and lyrics have been examined here and the conclusion is, hip-hop is an institution of culture not just a genre of music.  Although leaders in the hip-hop community do owe a debt to their listeners to educate them toward a life that is free from violence and oppression.  It seems that the roots of Black music were rooted in oppression, to oppress oneself then would be very counterproductive.  To be even more clear, censorship or boycott is never a healthy solution in a free, democratic society.  Questioning art and all things that come with culture, however is the hallmark of a democracy.  It was done in Russia in the time of Tolstoy and it has been done in the United States from the earliest times.

In conclusion, hip-hop is more than just music, it is a mode of communication, a narrative of storytelling that can never please all audiences.  The stock answer to those, who do not like the music, is simply to not listen to it.  For those with concerns over the treatment of women or the implications toward violence and other social maladies, too, should not listen.  Instead there should be a mode of acceptance that art will only appeal to certain people and just as there is art education, there should be education over the value of acceptance and value of women and all marginalized people.

References

Anderson, C., Carnagey, N. & Eubanks, J.  (2003). “Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs With Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings” in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84.

Howard, C.  (12 December 2001).  “Hip-Hop and the Black Church: In Search for Mutual Embracing”.  Newsletter: Boston Theological Institute.  XXXI(13).

Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (1997). “An introduction to classical (respondent) conditioning“. in Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 16 April 2009 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/behsys/classcnd.html

Jay-Z  (2002). “B*****s and Sisters” on The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse.  Retrieved 16 April 2009 from http://www.lyricsystem.com/jay-z/the-blueprint-2-the-gift-the-curse/bitches-sisters.html.

Ludacris.  (2004).  “Get Back” on The Red Light District.  Retrieved 16 April 2009 from http://www.lyricsondemand.com/l/ludacrislyrics/getbacklyrics.html.

String, S.  (2001).  “Maintaining the Status Quo: Rap Music Preferences”.  The Berkeley McNair Research Journal.

Tolstoy, Leo.  (1890). “The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories” in Great Literature Online: 1997-2007.  Retrieved 16 April 2009 from http://www.classicauthors.net/Classics/Tolstoy/kreutzer/kreutzer30.html.

University of Chicago Magazine.  (June 2005).  “Feminists call for hip-hop reform”.  97(5).

Wishnia, S.  (9 February, 2006).  “Parental Advisory: Explicit History, Sexually explicit music is as American as apple pie. (And as old.)” in The Indypendent.  Retrieved 16 April 2009 from http://www.indypendent.org/2006/02/07/parental-advisory-explicit-history-sexually-explicit-music-is-as-american-as-apple-pie-and-as-old/.

 

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