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Decoding Hip-Hop’s Cultural Impact

Decoding Hip-Hop’s Cultural Impact
Scholars are poised to take a close look at the influence of hip-hop on the social identity, values of today’s youth.

By Ronald Roach

As a cultural movement, hip-hop manages to get billed as both a positive and negative influence on young people, especially on Black and Latino youth. On one hand, there are African American activists, artists and entrepreneurs, such as Russell Simmons, who seek to build a progressive political movement among young hip-hop fans and who have had modest success with voter registration efforts. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of critics who denounce the negative portrayals of Black people, especially women, in hip-hop lyrics and videos.  
Recently, a few critics in major U.S. newspapers took note of a well-publicized marketing firm study that cited the cultural influence of hip-hop and reported on sexuality among African American youth in households earning less than $25,000 per year in 10 cities. The study revealed that Black adolescents are becoming sexually active at ages younger than other youth and are suffering from HIV/AIDS at a rate higher than other groups.
“The teens did display attitudes consistent with the macho pose of hip-hop rappers. Their motto: ‘Use or be used,’ among others. And ‘Get it while you can.’ And consistent with a culture that uses ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ as labels for every woman but one’s mama, the study reveals ‘Black females are dissed by almost everyone,’ including other Black females,” wrote nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page. 
“The study of the hip-hop generation fails to pin down the big question: Does rap music and other traits of the hip-hop culture influence teens or merely mirror the culture that teens have created? The answer is probably both,” Page noted. 
After more than two decades of hip-hop’s growth, an emerging cohort of young scholars may very well provide clear answers to questions of hip-hop’s influence. “At one level, we need to document the genre. On a more sophisticated level, we need to determine how African American and Latino students perceive their social identity with respect to hip-hop’s content, expressions and context. It is also important that we examine the perspectives of both the producers and consumers of hip-hop,” says Dr. Beatrice Bridglall, the assistant director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia University.

beyond celebration
Dr. S. Craig Watkins, a professor of sociology, African American studies, and radio, television, and film at the University of Texas-Austin, is among a group of social scientists who have taken up the charge to examine exactly what impact hip-hop is having on its young audiences. For the most part, Watkins says that hip-hop scholarship has focused on analyzing content and cultural interpretation. That trend will change as scholars examine the effect the music and media images from hip-hop culture are having on the social identity and values of young people.
Previously, scholars, wondering whether the music and the culture would last, tended not to focus on the impact it was having upon its audience, Watkins explains. He also contends that a number of scholars embraced hip-hop with an uncritical, celebratory slant in their scholarship. With the passage of time and hip-hop’s unimpeachable commercial success, it’s become critical to explore its cultural impact, he says. “For young Blacks, it’s important as culture because they see it as something that represents them,” Watkins notes.
Since the 1990s, Watkins has examined questions such as “What accounts for the global popularity of hip-hop culture products such as rap?” and “What has the ‘commodification of blackness’ done to the Black community?” That has led him to closely study media representations of hip-hop culture as a way to “explore what’s going on with young people — their values, attitudes and behaviors,” he says.
Currently, Watkins is planning a survey project that will initially study the attitudes and beliefs of 100 to 200 Texas youth of different races and ethnicities to determine what kind of media culture engages them. The study cohort will be made of seventh, eighth and ninth graders. “I want to see how that shapes their behavior, lifestyle, self-esteem, mental health and attitudes toward their peers and society,” he says.
Watkins expects to have the first round of studies on the Texas youths ready by spring 2005. He estimates that to do a high-end, first-round investigation will cost between $300,000 and $400,000.
Dr. Gwendolyn Pough, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, says her research of hip-hop culture has looked at the content and form of hip-hop performance, as well as the assessment of performance, lyrics and media images upon its audience. In her upcoming book, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, Pough is said to show “how influential women rappers such as Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot and Lil’ Kim are building on the legacy of earlier generations of women — from Sojourner Truth to sisters of the Black power and civil rights movements — to disrupt and break into the dominant patriarchal public sphere.”  She says that while women have sought to empower themselves through hip-hop, males have all too willingly used the culture to denigrate them.  
“My work looks at how hip-hop affects Black women,” Pough says.
She adds that there’s been little scholarship that examines hip-hop in terms of Black women’s representation, as well the effects the culture has on the self-image, social identity, and values of young Black women.

Gaining Acceptance
Dr. Cynthia Winston, an assistant professor of psychology at Howard University, says research psychologists can expect to wage a struggle to gain acceptance for work that assesses the impact of hip-hip culture upon youth social identity. In her own work, which investigates the psychology of high-achieving African American students, her subjects relate that hip-hop culture has helped shape their identity as young Blacks. Winston’s research on African American achievement has been awarded a National Science Foundation career grant. 
“My sense is that most young African Americans strongly relate to the influence of hip-hop culture,” she says.
Winston expects to be very encouraging of psychology students who want to examine hip-hop culture in their research. It will be imperative for researchers to aggressively employ sound research methodology to ensure their work is taken seriously in the research community, Winston says. She notes that psychology research based on Black culture ideas and theories is still finding acceptance in the academy.
“If you’re rooting your research and your findings in something that is very much intimately involved with Black cultural experiences and phenomena, there is a hesitancy because there’s so many things that have to be revisited,” says David Wall Rice, a Howard graduate psychology student under Winston.
He is writing a dissertation on “race self-complexity and identity construction of African American male adolescents,” which acknowledges that hip-hop culture plays a significant role in young Black male identity.
“It’s a topic and an interest that will always be a part of my research. I don’t know if it would be a main focus, but it’s something that will be part of it because it’s part of the people that I’m doing research on,” Rice says.
Dr. Anthony Kwame Harrison, a newly minted Ph.D. in anthropology from Syracuse University who wrote his dissertation on West Coast underground rap music, believes that scholars who assess hip-hop’s impact on youth should be clear to make distinctions among the various genres of rap music, as well as the media and corporate entities that promote hip-hop culture. Harrison, a devotee of progressive hip-hop culture which includes underground rap, says it’s incumbent upon scholars to examine the corporate culture that promotes the hip-hop music most commonly heard on radio and viewed as music videos on television.
Since the early 1990s, the biggest selling hip-hop artists have been the ones most associated with “gangsta” rap; the “bling-bling” rap that celebrates materialism; and the “big pimping” rap that denigrates women, according to Harrison, who teaches in the sociology department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “It’s the partnership of hip-hop and corporate media that’s brought us the negative images and the rap music that people complain most about,” Harrison says.
He says it’s significant to note that since Whites have become the biggest consumers of rap music, a trend which dates back to the early to mid-1990s, the exposure of hip-hop artists tends to go to those who push the most negative images and morally questionable lyrics. “(Scholars) have to be conscious of who gets promoted and the entities that support them,” he says.

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