"The Link Between Rap Music and Youth Crime and Violence: A Review of the Literature and Issues for Future Research," Justice Professional, vol. 11, February 1999, p. 339. Copyright © 1999 by Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis, Ltd., and the author.
Research shows no link between rap lyrics and criminal behavior, argues Becky L. Tatum in the following viewpoint. Tatum maintains that arguments against rap are based on societal prejudices against African Americans, the primary consumers of rap music. She contends that current research on the effects of rap music has significant limitations and claims that more studies need to be conducted before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. Tatum is a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- In Tatum's opinion, what are the similarities and differences between hard core rap and heavy metal?
- What does Tatum say are three arguments used to encourage the censorship of heavy metal and rap music?
- What did K. Took and D. Weiss conclude about the correlation between music preferences and behavioral problems?
Popular music has traditionally been perceived as having a negative influence on adolescent youths. Criticisms of early jazz, the blues, rock n' roll, R&B and rap have all suggested that the lyrics cause youths to display negative attitudes and to engage in delinquent and antisocial behaviors. Of the contemporary music genres, rap music—in particular gangsta rap—is seen as being the most harmful to youths, and as a result, has been subjected to the harshest censorship. For example, rap is the only music genre to have a recording (As Nasty As They Wanna Be) to be declared 'as criminally obscene' by a federal judge or to have a recording (Cop Killer) boycotted by the law enforcement community. Moreover, in 1994, the negative effects of rap music were the primary focus of a congressional hearing on the violent and demeaning imagery in popular music held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice.
Despite public discourse, the effects of rap music on attitudes and behaviors remain unclear, and in terms of empirical study, largely unexplored....
A Historical Background
Before examining linkages between rap music and criminal and violent behavior among youths, it is important to place the music genre within a historical frame of reference. As an art form, rap music is primarily grounded in the African and African American culture. Oral language set against a musical background dates back to early African societies who used the tradition to entertain and educate audiences in tribal history and current events. In American society, rap can be found in early versions of jazz and R&B music and has traditionally been a form of verbal contest among inner city African American dwellers.
Modern rap music originated in the late 1970s in lower-class neighborhoods of New York City. Focusing on the contemporary African American urban experience, modern rap emerged as a form of cultural resistance and social protest of African American youths to their deteriorating economic and social condition. Although original songs were about partying and having a 'good time,' themes quickly evolved to include issues such as racism, police brutality, drug addiction, stereotyped racial roles and material deprivation. In short, rap music is a component of the hip hop culture; that is, the attitudes, dress, music and dance of youths residing in post-industrial inner cities. The music, in particular, represents a form of storytelling that articulates social and cultural experiences.
Although rap music is considered to be the voice of the urban African American youth, it is important to recognize the role (albeit smaller) of youths of other racial minorities, especially Puerto Rican youths, in the initiation and creation of the music form. J. Flores argues that Puerto Rican youths, as a result of the African foundations of their cultural backgrounds and similar effects of postindustrialization in neighborhoods of New York City, most directly shared the creative stage for the development of the hip hop culture. The consumers of rap, however, include youths of all races, classes, and nationalities. Interestingly, more white suburban youths consume rap music than poor black youths. In fact, the success of the rap album Niggaz 4 Life as the number one selling album in the country in 1989 is attributed to its demand by middle class white youths. M. Dyson and R. Kelley suggest that for youths residing outside of inner-cities, the ghetto represents 'a place of adventure, unbridled violence, erotic fantasy and/or an imagery alternative to suburban boredom.'
The Forms of Rap Music
Basically, two forms of rap music are recognized: (1) life-line or hard-core rap; and (2) commercial or soft rap. Commercial or 'soft rap' is devoid of any social message and addresses common issues between the classes or races. The Fresh Prince's Parents Don't Understand, which describes the problems and frustrations that exists between parents and teenagers, is an example of soft rap.
The lyrics of hard core rap contain explicit language and violent and sexual imagery. Hard core rap consists of two subcategories: (1) political or Black nationalist rap; and (2) gangsta rap. Political or black nationalist rap draws heavily on the philosophies and doctrines of Black nationalist organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, and political and religious figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey. Describing the social, economic and political status of Blacks, it promotes Africentrism, Black empowerment and the preservation of Black culture. Public Enemy's (PE) Fight the Power is an example of this subgenre.
Gangsta rap, which is the focus of most of the criticism of rap music, developed on the West Coast in the late 1980s. While it also describes the social milieu and experiences of inner city youths, it differs from political or Black nationalist rap in that its messages and themes:
- Glorify the gangsta lifestyle and mentality. Borrowing from the characterization of white male gangsters in the 1920s, gangsta rap projects the life of the rebellious outlaw in which violence is the norm, and killing is a necessary means of survival.
- Advocate the use of violence against women and the police.
- Promote sexist and misogynist attitudes toward women. Women are depicted as bitches and whores who serve as the sexual objects of men or who are nags or gold diggers.
- Promote stereotypical perceptions of the sexual prowess of black men and the black male as the crazy or psychotic nigger.
Examples of gangsta rap include Ice-T's Cop Killer, NWA's Fuck the Police and Tupac Shakur's Outlaw.
Although the explicit language and violent and sexual imagery form the basis of the public debate regarding the harmfulness of hard core rap, these characteristics are not exclusive to rap music nor is it a contemporary phenomenon. The criticism and censorship of popular music date back to the early 1900s. Moreover, some of the lyrics of earlier songs such as Lloyd Price's Stagger Lee (1958) and Alan Lomax's (1955) Make Me a Pallet on the Floor rival that of most modern day gangsta rappers.
The characteristics of hard core rap are also similar to those found in heavy metal music. Both contain themes of rebellion against authority and the manipulation and abuse (largely sexual) of women. According to R. Stallworth, the two music genre differ in terms of the directness in which these messages are expressed. Heavy metalists sometimes mask their messages; the messages in rap tend to be more direct. Although heavy metal music has also been criticized, as will be noted in the next section, this criticism tends to differ from that levied against rap music.
The Causation Arguments
As noted earlier, the perceived relationship between popular music and adolescent crime and delinquency is nothing new. New music has always been seen as too sexually suggestive and as dangerous to public morals. According to A. Binder, three basic arguments have been used to encourage the censorship of heavy metal and rap music: (1) the corruption of youths; (2) the protection of youths; and (3) danger to society.
The corruption argument states that explicit lyrics—whether glorifying suicide, anti-authority attitudes or deviant sexual acts—have a negative effect on youth's attitudes. The emphasis is the effect of the music on young listeners rather than the effect such listeners might have on society at large. In short, the music suggests to youths that these forms of behaviors are acceptable.
The protection argument suggests that parents and other adults must shield America's youth from offensive song lyrics. Underlying this argument are the assumptions of adult responsibility and youths' need for security and guidance in living. How to best protect youths, however, varies from suggestions of laws against harmful music to warning labels for explicit materials.
Finally, the danger to society argument posits that the consumers of the music pose a danger to women, teachers and other authority figures. Unlike the previous two arguments, the focus here is on the adolescent and not the effects of the music on adolescent's attitudes and behaviors.
Is Rap a Cultural Threat?
Both Binder and T. Rose note that the danger to society argument is more likely to be applied to rap music than heavy metal music. This may be associated with the perceived demographic characteristics of both the consumers and producers of the music. Rap is perceived as being an urban black (lower-class) youth music genre; heavy metal music is perceived to be the music genre of middle- and working-class white youths. Rose, in particular, argues that the assaults on rap music are part of a long-standing sociologically based discourse that positions black influences as a cultural threat to American society. Although heavy metal music is also viewed as being harmfulness to American norms and values, heavy metal fans are depicted as victims of that influence; rap fans, on the other hand, are depicted as representatives of the cultural threat. In short, the attacks on black and white youth's cultural expressions differ in important ways. Unlike heavy metal music, the ideology surrounding the harmfulness of rap music results in the criminalization of both black youths and their music.
Three popular incidents that have been used to illustrate the dangerousness of rap music and its consumers include (1) the New York's Central Park wilding incident where a group of inner city youths who were reported to be involved in rap music attacked a female jogger; and (2) violent juvenile attacks on police officers in North Carolina and Texas. In the North Carolina incident, the youths were found to have NWA 'Niggers with Attitude' carved on their rifle stocks. The defense attorney in the Texas case argued that his juvenile client was influenced by the lyrics of the gangsta rap song 'Fuck the Police.' The recent violent murders of gangsta rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (AKA Christopher Wallace) have further added fuel to the debate regarding the delinquent and criminal effects of rap music.
Is there a link between the violent and sexually explicit lyrics and imagery portrayed in rap music and adolescent crime and violence? And if so, what are the dynamics of this relationship? ...
The Empirical Evidence
Despite the public outcry against rap music, there has been surprisingly little scholarly research that has examined its effects on adolescents. In fact, a review of the extant literature reveals only nine empirical studies investigating potential links between rap music and violence, deviance, self-concept and/or social perceptions. These studies are fairly recent (most being conducted in 1994-5), and are exploratory in nature.
In possibly the first empirical study involving rap music, J. Epstein, D. Pratto and J. Skipper examined the relationship between musical preference, commitment to popular music and behavioral problems. The researchers hypothesized that: (1) musical preference was related to race; (2) musical preference predicted behavioral problems; and (3) the frequency of behavioral problems was related to the number of hours spent listening to popular music. Data collected from a survey, school records and participant observation of 80 middle school teens revealed that although race did predict musical preference—white students preferred heavy metal music, black students preferred rap music—there were no significant relationships between music type and behavioral problems or commitment to music and the frequency of behavioral problems.
K. Took and D. Weiss surveyed both adolescents and their parents to assess the association between current and past psychosocial functioning and music preferences. Adolescents in this study were outpatients at a military adolescent or private psychiatric, substance abuse counseling or residential care unit. Study findings indicated that adolescents who preferred heavy metal and rap music had higher incidence of below-average school grades, school behavior problems, sexual activity, drug and alcohol use and arrests. However, when gender was controlled, only below-averaged school grades and a history of counseling in elementary school for school problems remained significant. The researchers concluded that the correlation between music preferences and behavioral problems was a result of adolescent male socialization. Moreover, since the behavioral problems started before youths began to listen to heavy metal and rap, the researchers argued that music genres contributed to rather than caused the problems.
Studying the Impact of Music Videos
Some academic scholars suggest that music videos, which interpret or embellish a song, have a greater impact on the attitudes and activities of the consumer than audio music. Although no one has compared the differential effects of the two music treatments for rap music, researchers have assessed the effects of exposure to rap music videos on adolescent attitudes toward the use of violence. J. Johnson, L. Jackson and L. Gatto found that African American male youths (ages 11-16) who were exposed to violent rap music videos expressed a greater acceptance of the use of violence (including violence against women) than those youths who viewed nonviolent rap videos or no music videos. In another study, James Johnson and Mike Adams, Leslie Ashburn and William Reed compared the effects of exposure to nonviolent rap videos on the attitudes of teenage African American males and females toward dating violence. Sixty adolescents divided into two control and two experimental groups (15 males and 15 females per group type) viewed videos depicting women in sexually subordinate roles or saw no videos. Adolescents then read a vignette involving teen dating violence perpetuated by a male. Results showed that while male acceptance of violence was not a function of viewing the videos, video-viewing females showed greater acceptance of teen dating violence than females who viewed no videos.
D. Zillman, C. Aust, K. Hoffman, and C. Love moved beyond examining the relationship between rap music and violence to study the effects of popular rock, nonpolitical rap or radical political rap music videos on the self-esteem and voting behavior of African American and white high school students. Students' exposure to the three types of music videos and their subsequent participation in a mock student election indicated that: (1) music preferences were race specific—African American students preferred rap whereas white students preferred popular rock; (2) neither music genre affected the self-esteem or voting behavior of African American students; and (3) white students showed higher scholastic abilities after viewing rap videos and were more likely to support a liberal African American candidate after exposure to radical political rap music videos.
Studying College Students
In addition to adolescent populations, researchers have also analyzed the effects of rap music on college students and mental health patients. Interviewing a female sample enrolled at a historically black college, B. Wade and C. Thomas-Gunnar found that although the content of rap music was perceived to be inappropriate and harmful to society, it was also viewed as being reflective of the existing black gender relations. C. Barongan, G. Hall and C. Nagayama, however, found that college males who listened to misogynous rap music were more likely to show assaultive or sexually violent film vignettes to female confederates (30%) than college males who had listened to neutral rap music (7%). The link between music and antisocial and delinquent behavior was not supported in a later experiment by M. Ballard and S. Coates. Exposure to one of six songs (3 heavy metal and 3 rap) representing nonviolent, homicidal and suicidal themes did not significantly affect the suicidal ideation, anxiety or self-esteem of male or female undergraduates. In regards to the rap music, students who heard the nonviolent song reported more depressive symptoms than students who heard the violent song. Rap songs also elicited greater angry responses than heavy metal songs. The researchers attributed these findings to two factors: (1) that students felt better about their lives after hearing the violent lyrics; and (2) few students in the samples (which was primarily non-Hispanic Caucasians) reported rap as their musical preference. As for research involving mental health patients, C. Harris, R. Bradley and S. Titus reported more inappropriate behavior among patients when hard rock and rap music were played than when country and western or easy listening music were played.
To summarize, extant research, although addressing many of the issues surrounding rap music, does not consistently show that it influences attitudes and behaviors. In fact, there is almost an even split between studies that suggest that rap music has antisocial and delinquent effects and studies that suggest that these effects are minor or nonexistent. What is evident is that scholarly analysis of the topic is in its initial stages. This combined with the inherent limitations of existing studies indicate the need for further research....
As revealed by the literature review, we cannot conclude with any degree of certainty that violent and sexually explicit rap lyrics lead impressionable youths to antisocial, criminal and delinquent behavior. Unfortunately, it appears that present arguments regarding the harmfulness of rap music are based on factors other than scholarly analysis. The truth of the matter is that the effects of rap music, regardless of sub-type, are basically unknown. This does not mean, however, that rap music has no negative effects, direct or indirect, on youths. It does mean that extensive research must be conducted before causal inferences are made.