Does Hip Hop Have a Positive Effect on Society?

On the 11th of August 1973, DJ Herc (real name Clive Campbel) hosted a party on his block, in in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue, for his sister Cindy’s birthday. For many people this event is sited as the birth of the genre, soon be known as, Hip Hop. In the years to come; Rappers Delight became the first rap song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979; in 1991 N.W.A’S Efil4zaggin reaches number one on the pop charts; in 1998 Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became the first Hip Hop to win the Grammy for Best Album and by 2017 Hip Hop had surpassed Rock as the most listened to genre in the world. However -as with any new emerging art form- the Hip Hop culture has amassed many criticisms throughout its history. It has been blamed for inducing violence in young people, perpetuating misogyny and homophobia as well as glorifying drug use and gang violence. Some critics even go as far to say that Hip Hop holds no cultural or artistic value. But how far are these critiques of Hip Hop accurate? Are the controversies surrounding the genre embedded? In short: does Hip Hop enhance or degrade society? These questions are important to ask and understand as Hip Hop holds a very important place in not only the cultural heritage of people whose voices are undervalued and often times unheard, but it also stands as the dominant genre in the lives of many young people from all over the globe, no matter the gender or race. Because of its significant cultural value and dominance, it is important to question whether the beliefs behind the genre and the ideas that are put across from it are having a positive effect on society and whether change needs to be made in the way musicians who belong to this genre present their music.  

In order to fully answer the question as to what effect Hip Hop has on society as a whole, I have decided to break down the controversies into five key criticisms that the genre is synonymous with. The areas I will be focusing on are, misogyny, homophobia, gang violence, drug abuse and the value Hip Hop has as an art form. As many of these issues are societal, I chose to refer to many academic professionals who specialise in critiquing the same issues. However as Hip Hop itself is a culture, I thought it was also important to observe the opinions and experiences that specific individuals have had with it. Therefore, I chose to gather the insight of many Hip Hop veterans and some opinions of those who are still working today, as it is those people who are the most immersed in the world of the genre.  

Part One: Misogyny and Gender Bias  

Among some of Hip Hop’s more controversial criticisms, stands one that even the most loyal fans of the genre cannot defend. This problem, of course, is the blatant and continuous degradation and objectification of women both inside and outside of the Hip Hop community. There is no denying of its prevalence in the genre. In fact working MC ‘Murs’ (real name Nicholas Carter) (5) cites a statistic that in 2018, the word ‘bitch’ was the second most used slur in Hip Hop, second only to the N-word. As further evidence of the inherent bias towards male rappers, in 2017, the percentage of female rappers in the top 20 was only 12%. But where do these misogynistic ideas come from and why are they so commonly featured in Hip Hop music? Professor Tricia Rose (13) argues that the increase in the commercialisation of Hip Hop seen in the 2000s may be in part at fault for this. She argues that after the birth and rise of popularity of Gangsta Rap in the late 80s (thanks to acts like N.W.A and Ice-T), that record labels latched onto this popularity and took the most replicable parts of these artists songs and formed the three archetypes most commonly seen in commercial Hip Hop. The Pimp, The Gangsta and The Hoe. in the case of misogyny, it is The Pimp and The Hoe which are most important. The mass production of these images in mainstream Hip Hop resulted in an explosion of songs infected with an obvious sexist undertone. The rise of the term ‘bitch’ in Hip Hop correlates with this rise in commercialism as 2007 (when Commercialised Hip Hop was at its peak) saw a noticeable rise in the usage of the word.  

However, this discrimination is not just limited to the lyrics of the music but the attitude towards the people that make them. Specifically, the female rappers who managed to find a foothold in the industry. There is a common trend with female rappers that when they get into a position of fame and reverence, as soon as another contender for ‘Best female rapper’ comes along they immediately get pitted against each other or replaced. A recent example Nikki Minaj was hailed as the “Queen of Hip Hop”, up until Cardi B started gaining in popularity and then an immediate switch in public perception, marking Cardi as the new “Queen of Hip Hop”. Compare this to male rappers who instead of being made to be adversaries, sparks actual intelligent conversation comparing their skills. This demonstrates the vast difference in the ways that female and male rappers are treated.   

The question is, however, are there any positives in this area of Hip Hop? Whilst it is true that women in Hip Hop have found it extremely hard to break through into the mainstream and have successful careers of their own, that has not stopped some of the world’s most talented and well-respected MCs being women. The late 80s and all of the 90s saw numerous acts like Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte and Missy Elliot take Hip Hop into their own hands, providing an alternative perspective from the eyes of a woman, talking about subject matters that perhaps the male rappers were scared to talk about (or perhaps contributing to). Fast forward to 2018 and female MCs are enjoying some of the greatest success they’ve ever had with Tierra Whack’s Whack World, Noname’s Room 25 and Cardi B’s Grammy-winning album Invasion of Privacy all being some of the year’s most well-reviewed and popular albums.   

However, when talking about female rappers and the influence they have had on the genre, it is impossible not to mention one name. Ms Lauryn Hill. In the documentary about Ms Hill (12), it is clear to see that she is a prime example of someone that not only faced the prejudice that female rappers have to deal with but also someone who overcame them. Originally, she was not meant to do anything but sing the hooks for the songs of her old group The Fugees. However, Lauryn had a message she wanted to send that was not being talked about in other genres like RnB and Pop, and so she chose to start rapping, using Hip Hop as her way of expressing that message. After their second album, The Score became a critical and financial success it was clear to see that Lauryn was the talent of the group. Despite the success of the group (winning two Grammys at the 1997 award show), Ms. Hill left the group to focus on a solo career where she could focus on her own ideas. This decision ultimately cemented her as one of Hip Hop’s greatest products as her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill went on to win five Grammys, becoming the first Hip Hop artist to win Album of the Year. The album itself proved that female MCs could rap just as well as anyone else, as well as addressing issues such as toxic masculinity, sexism and Lauryn’s own struggles with growing as a female artist in a male-dominated industry. What artists like Lauryn Hill demonstrate is that, despite the inherent sexism in Hip Hop that is still present, there is still a space in the genre where women can achieve just as much and sometimes more than their male counterparts. However, it cannot be denied that Hip Hop has a troubling history when it comes to the discrimination of women and still has a way to go in terms of eliminating the problem from the genre.   

Part Two: Homophobia  

Another group that has faced repeated attacks throughout Hip Hop’s history is the LGBT community. In the mid-90s and early 2000s a witch hunt to expose which rappers were secretly gay began. These witch hunts were conducted by Hip Hop publications that sought to reveal these rapper’s secrets in order to shame and diminish their character. HipHopDX (3) discusses where the need to out and shame these men came from Murs sights the stereotype that gay men are less masculine and so the ‘macho’ persona that many African-American men feel like this goes against how they should act and so they don’t support the lifestyle choice that they made. Another interpretation on where these opinions can come from is that the African-American population have very strong links to Christianity and Christian beliefs (79% of Black people in America in 2014) and so feel justified to discriminate homosexuals based on their religion.  However, as with all kinds of discrimination, there are major flaws in the logic of using religion and lifestyle choices to justify discrediting gay rappers. Whilst the people who claim that homosexuality goes against the words of the bible, the same could be said for the rampant references to adultery and murder and yet some of these people still support Hip Hop artists who make these arguments. Likewise, whilst people may not follow the same lifestyle of gay people, they may not follow the lifestyle of gang violence or drug dealing seen in many Hip Hop songs.   

The issue of homophobia in Hip Hop is not just connected with the ways in which people view the MCs who identify as gay. There is also a clear issue centred around the repeated use of homophobic slurs by heterosexual rappers. Slurs like “fag” and “faggot” saw a significant rise in use in the early 2000s and early 2010s. This issue is not just connected with rappers under the radar who may be able to bypass the public opinion, big-name rappers like Eminem freely used with little to no backlash. In fact, in 2018, on the track ‘Fall’ on his album Kamikaze, the rapper still used the word in reference to openly gay rapper Tyler the Creator.  Whilst he has since claimed that he went too far with the inclusion of the word in the song, the mere fact that Eminem still felt he was in the right to use the word in the first place not only reflects the sad truth that homophobia is still prevalent in Hip Hop but also worrying that the younger audience of such rappers may see the use of this word and see it as acceptable to repeat it outside of the song.   

Despite the presence of such language in some songs, the progress that has been made, not only by the Hip Hop community but by society as a whole should not be understated. What is happening now with the LGBT community in Hip Hop is a similar process to what we saw happen with the reclamation of the N-word, with gay MCs appropriating the F-word for themselves and changing the ways it is used, transforming it from a word used to discriminate to a term that they’re proud to use. As well as this more and more openly gay rappers are performing and achieving success in the Hip Hop mainstream. Frank Ocean is openly bisexual with a very large following; Tyler the Creator came out in 2017 through his critically acclaimed album Flower Boy and Young MA is starting to gain serious traction herself.  Arguably one of the most vital and outspoken rappers currently working today is the founder of the Hip Hop collective Brockhampton, Kevin Abstract.  Kevin (real name Ian Simpson) was born in Corpus Cristi, Texas (a backwards place in terms of acceptance of LGBT communities) and in 2016 he came out as gay. Since then he has been extremely open about both what prejudice he has dealt with as a result of his sexuality but also just open about the fact that he is gay, never shying away from expressing his desires, thoughts or fantasies as a gay man. In an interview with the BBC (11) Kevin was asked whether he would ever stop making music about his sexuality, to which he replied, “when people don’t need me to see themselves represented”.  In the same interview, he also stated that he does not want to be labelled as a “queer rapper”. In his words “I have to exist in a homophobic space in order to make change”. What people like Kevin Abstract demonstrate is that there is no longer such a vicious stigma that surrounds Hip Hop around artists openly discussing their sexuality and the abuse that they may receive because of it. If he and others like him can thrive and continue to call out the use of homophobic language, then Hip Hop may be able to overcome its troublesome past with accepting the LGBT community.  

Part Three: Drug Abuse   

As much as the prevalence of misogyny and homophobia is within Hip Hop, one other problem within the genre that is clear from any outside perspective is the quantity of drug-related references in a large proportion of songs. In his TED Talk in Nashville (2), Hip Hop artist Lecrae Devaughn Moore attempted to trace back the origins of these references which even have connections to the origin of the genre itself. In the 1970s the US President Richard Nixon announced that the ‘War on Drugs’ in America had begun. This did not pick up immense traction until the arrival of Ronald Reagan in 1982. At this point, Hip Hop was still in its early stages and its messages were still very non-violent, almost always anti-drug and offered more of a narration of societal problems rather than a glorification. Come 1983 the unemployment rate rose to 21%, alongside the FBI’s anti-drug funding and possible funding from the CIA being given to Central and South American countries (in the form of aid) in order to traffic drugs back into inner city communities. This combination of unemployment and the widespread availability of drugs led many men in African-American and Latino communities to believe that drug trading was the only way that they could follow the American Dream after (in the words of Lecrae) “their nation called them monsters and abandoned them”. Then towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 90s, rappers began to feel more and more vilified by the government and so acts like N.W.A decided to embrace the connection between Hip Hop and criminality that had been stigmatized. They began to rap about more relatable topics for the youth that were growing up in the same communities that the rappers had, giving a sense of relatability that had previously not been seen. Hip Hop became a canvas for artists to communicate the stories and experiences that minorities face in America.     

Now, whilst the original intentions of Hip-Hop may have been justifiable, in more recent times the messages from the music have changed. Drug-related imagery and references became more frequently used and focused on the positives of drug usage with seemingly no warning about the negative effects that may come with it. In the late 2010s, references to the antidepressant drug Xanax rose significantly and brought the previously relatively unknown drug into the forefront of pop culture, the effects of which may already be being felt. In an interview with CNN (8), Long Beach rapper Vince Staples explained how he believes that the focus of Hip Hop shifted from the drug dealer to the drug used and this shift may have led to the death of his close friend a few months before the interview took place. Staples tells how a few months before his friend’s overdose he had no idea what Xanax was. What this shows is how much of an influence the genre has over its audience, a fact that is somewhat backed up by research conducted by Ralph DiClemente and his colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta (9). The research showed that of the 522 14-18-year-old African American females who took part in DiClemente’s research which exposed two groups (high-exposure and low-exposure) to Hip Hop for one year, it was shown that those who had a high-exposure to Hip Hop media as well as being more likely to take sexual risks, were more likely to be drinkers and drug users. Whilst many people including Murray Foreman (Professor of Media Studies at Northeastern University in Boston) argue that Hip Hop is not the sole influence on this sort of behaviour -broken homes, psychological problems and economic depression to name a few- it is recognized by many experts that rap has an effect on young minds.   

However, it is not just experts in medical and psychological fields that recognise this, the rap community itself has is also beginning to take steps in the right direction to bring awareness to the dangers of drug usage, with rappers like J Cole including lyrics in his songs about the negatives of drug use and rappers like Lil Xan even going as far to remove the drug reference from his stage name. One rapper that is particularly vocal in the genre is Danny Brown who’s 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition talked about his experience past with drug abuse in graphic and vivid detail. In an interview with Shea Serrano (6) in preparation for the album’s release Brown said “I’ve seen the way music affects these people. A lot of this shit, I wouldn’t have gotten into it if it wasn’t for rap music,” Brown told Setaro. “So, I just wanna let people know that people do take shit literally and you gotta just be careful with what you talk about if you’re not honest. I was talking about what I was doing. A lot of these people are just saying it for entertainment purposes, but you really do have these kids out here trying these drugs. It’s not cool.” He has since stated multiple times (whilst retaining his stance that musicians can make music about whatever they choose) that rappers have the responsibility to educate the audiences of their music about, not only the good side of drugs but also the hangover and the potential damage they can cause.  

What rappers like Danny Brown, J Cole and Vince Staples represent is a shift in opinion in the Hip Hop community that the vast amount of drug references present in 90s/2000s Rap needs to evolve into a more constructive conversation that covers the good and bad, educating those who may never have tried it before. However, the likelihood of drug references disappearing from the genre is still unimaginably slim as drug selling and usage is so intrinsic to the experiences of many African-Americans that ignoring it would be disingenuous and question the rapper’s credibility to avoid the subject entirely.   

Part 4: Gang Violence

Whilst the previous criticisms are prevalent across the various sub-genres of Hip Hop, the issue of gang violence towards other African-American people and towards police is most commonly seen in the sub-genre known as Gangsta Rap. In his video on the subject (4) Murs of HipHop DX tells how the sub-genre first made its appearance in 1983 with Schoolly D’s ‘PSK, What Does it Mean?’. Before the release of this song, Black artists (whilst widespread in genres like Funk, Motown and Soul) had never really dealt with what it was like to live as an African-American in the USA. When major record labels became involved during the mid-80s, rappers now had the freedom to speak about whatever they wanted to without fear of being shut down for rapping about controversial issues. As the sound of Gangsta Rap evolved, it’s most famous act would soon follow with N.W.A and their record-breaking album Straight Outta Compton. The popularity of the album took the music industry completely by surprise and brought the issue of police violence towards black people to the forefront of mainstream pop culture.   

Whilst the release of Straight Outta Compton would go down as one of the most important releases in Hip Hop history, N.W.A brought with them a whole host of controversies surrounding the genre. Despite the overall progressive message behind the album that minority communities rallied around, certain aspects of the album seemed to muddy the water of the discussion on police violence. At the same time of the album’s release, the issue of black on black violence had gotten to a point where there were more black people dying at the hands of fellow black people, rather than by the hands of the police. This called into question whether the morals of songs like F**k Da Police (which said that it was bad for police to kill minorities) and the morals of songs like Straight Outta Compton were at odds with each other. Critics also argued that with the introduction of Gangsta Rap into the mainstream and the spawning of similar acts like Compton’s Most Wanted and DJ Quik had led to the increased gang homicide rates across urban communities, with 700 cases being reported in LA County in 1991 which had nearly doubled from the year before. This led to many influential members in black communities stating that the genre was to blame for the increase. Even members of the Hip Hop community began to criticise Gangsta Rap because with the rise in popularity of the genre, came a rise in demand for Gangsta Rap artists and songs. This meant acts who may not have lived the lives they rapped about, leading some to say that these artists were making a mockery of the lifestyle.   

However, whilst the data is there to support this notion, it can also be argued that Hip Hop was not the cause of the rise in gang-related violence but instead was the response of urban communities towards it.  This is seemingly backed up by the fact that by the time the genre’s sales had quadrupled, the homicide rate in LA (the home of Gangsta Rap) stayed the same. Another point that speaks in favour of Hip Hop is the fact that in recent times are the effects of new genres that spawned from Gangsta Rap like Trap and Drill music. After the peak of its popularity, Drill music began to lose popularity significantly. Despite the mass drop in sales (even in its home city of Chicago) the homicide rate kept rising. What this represents is a common conflict between government and culture/media that arises whenever the government wants to find a scapegoat for an issue they have ineffectively dealt with. It is common for governments to blame the influences of media on young minds for tragedies and ill behaviour. For instance: blaming Heavy Metal music during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s or the shift in focus onto violence in video games following the events of the Columbine School Shooting. The same is true for Hip Hop, with many politicians and public speakers taking aim at the genre and calling its influence on young minds extremely damaging. These claims, however, are not backed up with any substantial evidence. One of the most crucial observations about the controversy can be seen when looking at Chicago. The city is the home to a sub-genre of Hip Hop known as Drill Music. The genre invokes the same energy and lyrical content as Gangsta Rap and is in many ways a successor to it. What is important to note about this genre however is that whilst the popularity of the music has significantly decreased since its peak in 2016, the murder rate in Chicago still kept rising. This lack of connection between the two statistics supports the fact that there is not a correlation between the increase of Hip Hop’s presence in popular culture and the homicide rate. Hip Hop is not the cause of the violence but merely a bi-product and symptom of it.  If the genre died tomorrow then the violence would still continue.  

The real question when debating whether the violent imagery and stories used in Hip Hop actually have a positive effect on the people that listen to it comes down to whether or not it is morally right to censor the genre itself. Whilst this may create a quiet space where solutions and ways to mend the problem can be discussed, it may also take away the opportunity for minority groups to express their own stories in an artistic way. Silencing Hip Hop artists from drawing inspiration from real-world events may lead us further down the path of further silencing already oppressed groups.  

Part 5: Cultural Significance and Artistic Merit 

Whilst all the other arguments contained within this dissertation have been centred around measurable statistics and noticeable changes in public attitudes, this last paragraph is admittedly slightly subjective. This subjectivity does not, however, make the question as to whether Hip Hop can be considered artistically any less important to ask. When it comes down to its basic characteristics, Hip Hop is a form of music and so the cultural significance of the genre is important when answering the overall question ‘Does Hip Hop Have a Positive Effect on Society?’. In the debate on the subject (?) Aemon Courtney and Dr Micheal Eric Dyson -backed up by various others- attempt to answer the question as to whether Hip Hop enhances or degrades society. Courtney argues against Hip Hop saying that it glorifies prison and focuses more on a world view where “bad is good, wrong is right, where crude is cool and where asses are more valuable than brains”. Others in agreement with Courtney argue that Hip Hop encourages negative stereotypes of black people and it perpetuates the notion that if you speak in Standard English then you are somehow less of a black person. Furthermore, Professor Tricia Rose and Hip Hop Journalist Dream Hampton emphasise the point that commercial Hip Hop is still extremely misogynistic and that many rappers either avoid confronting this fact or just give meaningless excuses to justify it.  

On the other hand, rappers like Q-Tip, Questlove and KRS-One all speak up in favour of the genre, commending its ability to tell the stories of often unheard minorities and stating that to condemn an entire genre on the pitfalls of one section of it is extremely ignorant. It is interesting that it is Hip Hop that faces the majority of attacks from the media whereas other genres like Punk and RnB tackle similar subjects seem to be left alone. Others in favour of Hip Hop’s artistic merit sight its ability to be used in protest and resistance. Q-Tip explains the genres use in the 80s where groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy used the music to bring important controversies concerning race and the reclamation of the ‘N Word’ to the forefront of popular culture. Egyptian Rapper ‘Deeb’ then explains how in Middle-Eastern Countries Hip Hop is being used in similar ways in the modern day, providing the inhabitants of such countries with music which is often times more substantial than Pop Music.  

Further arguments in favour of Hip Hop come from Professor John Sutherland (a professor of English Literature at the University College of London) and Professor James Peterson (a professor at Lehigh University and founder of Hip Hop Scholars). Peterson maintains that anything that exists in poetry can be present in Rap Music, alongside Sutherland who claims that “In 20 years 2Pac will be regarded as one of the best American Poets”. This demonstrates that there is an increasing frequency in the opinion that Hip Hop artists are entirely capable of producing art that is as good as (if not better) than other genres. It is also not just Sutherland and Peterson that agree with the notion that Hip Hop is capable of holding cultural significance, with the National Recording Registry (an organisation run by the US Library of Congress, introduced in the year 2000 to archive sound recordings considered to be culturally, historically and aesthetically significant) inducting 8 Hip Hop albums into the registry.  

Whilst the debate as to whether a specific classification of art (or any art for that matter) has the right to exist and receive any amount of respect for its importance is a deep and complex argument, it is clear on a surface level that Hip Hop not only holds tremendous influence over modern day culture but also significance over the way young people interact with and view the world. This combined with the number of icons – many of whom have been prime sources in within this dissertation – should be proof enough that the genre can hold its ground with any and all genres of music. 

Conclusion

To reach a final conclusion as whether or not the effect that Hip Hop is a positive or negative one, it is important to first ask how a genre of music can be deemed to have an enriching effect on the society that it exists in. In today’s western societies; the need for equality of the sexes; the tolerance of those with alternate sexualities; the education on the possible dangers of drug abuse; the understanding on the conditions within urban areas and the growth and development of our culture are all important values that we can use to determine how morally positive a form of entertainment is or is not. When these values are applied to Hip Hop (much like society as a whole) we can identify a shift away from the more problematic past of the genre and towards the more virtuous outlook on these issues. Female rappers may still be in the vast minority but their presence within the genre is much more noticeable. Homophobic attitudes are now viewed with distain whilst previously being ignored. Drug related issues may sometimes be left to the wayside I songs made by some MCs but there is now more intelligent conversation on the topic. Gang violence is still an incredibly topical issue and still receives lots of insightful discussion from many MCs. As for the cultural significance of Hip Hop, the fact that Hip Hop was the most listened to genre in 2018 solidifies the fact that Hip Hop is an extremely relevant and important aspect of the modern-day musical landscape.  

Because of all of these factors I believe that Hip Hop as a whole certainly has many positive impacts on society. Whilst it is true that there is still room for improvement regarding certain attitudes –especially towards women- I do not believe that it is necessary for Hip Hop to become 100% “squeaky clean”, family friendly genre because it was never meant to be that. From its birth in the 70s until today, Hip Hop was created to tell the stories and experiences of those who may not have ever gotten the spotlight long enough. It is of cause true that Hip Hop and society as a whole have evolved since the genre’s inception, the rough exterior and truth-telling nature of the genre remains. To tell the artists within the genre to adhere to every societal norm is to tell them to leave behind the roots of the genre they inhabit. To tell an already quieted minority that they must silence themselves is to deny them they right to tell their own story and bring issues to the forefront of mainstream pop culture. 

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