In this essay, I am going to critically evaluate the relationship between rap music and criminality, a link that has gained much notoriety and has become a controversial topic of debate in recent times. Rap music, formally known as “Hip Hop”, is a musical genre developed in the United States by inner-city African Americans in the late 1970s and has become a huge component of the street culture around the world, particularly in the UK with the emergence of the garage, grime and drill music.
It’s a musical genre that consists of what is called rapping (or rhyming) which is a musical form of vocal delivery that incorporates “rhyme, rhythmic speech, and street vernacular” (Edwards, 2009). Rap is performed or chanted in a variety of ways, usually over an instrumental or musical accompaniment. The components of rap include “content” (what is being said), “flow” (rhythm) and “delivery” (cadence, tone). It has been long debated whether the general content and context of rap music encourages violence and hostility, due to the organic and raw nature of rap music and how poignant its music can be.
Especially in terms of its relatability and the way people can emote their lives through rap lyrics. Furthermore, fans of rap music are able to connect quite deeply with the songs and the artists they listen to as they link their lives to the lyrics of the songs, so it has always seemed plausible that rap music can influence a fans behaviours, emotions, feelings and psyche. However, this theory is far from a foregone inclusion and has always been incredibly difficult to prove.
Rapping first gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s as a kind of street art, especially among African American teenagers. But it wasn’t until 1979 when the Sugarhill Gang released their breakaway hit, “Rapper’s Delight, that record producers took notice of this emerging musical genre. Once they did, numerous rap acts, including Run-DMC and N.W.A., surfaced, and rap’s audience began to swell. It wasn’t just African American male rappers getting in on the act, either: By the 1980s, white rap bands such as the Beastie Boys and female rap bands such as Salt-n-Peppa were reaching the top of the charts as the genre of rap music began to emerge (Asante, 2008). By the 1990s, rap matured from an old-school style – which was based on relatively simplistic lyrics – to a new school style, which was louder and included more complex and evocative lyrics. Artists such as The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg and Tupac ruled the charts during this time, as did Eminem – who very much used elements of controversy and sensationalism, accompanied with his talent, to become one of the most popular white rappers of all time. The rhyming created by rappers is considered by many to be one of the most sophisticated styles of poetry and since its birth has often included rhymes that filled with provocative subjects such as sex, misogyny, violence and socio-political issues, where rap music has often had that air of “Me vs the World” about it with undertones of rebellion and insubordination (Rose, 2008) – which has resulted in the genre dividing opinion and developing a certain stigma lingering around the genre of rap since its birth.
Rap Music was often been seen as a “way out” and an opportunity for people in urban areas where opportunity is scarce, which has made the genre quite deeply rooted within African American culture. Street cultures offer a range of creative endeavours that can provide ethnically and economically marginalised youths instruments for existential and economic self-realisation. Rap plays a significant role in some marginalised young people’s entrepreneurial activities. (Kitwana, 2002). The genre of rap truly began as a true art form and a means of expression, but once the media started viewing it as a political discourse, it changed the way rap was discussed (Quinn, 1996). It is very common that there are moral panics surrounding popular music. “Gangsta rap” with its “often violent and misogynistic overtones of its lyrics, has instilled a form of moral panic among the white middle classes” (Bennett 1999, p. 135). There have also been attempts by white institutions such as the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Centre) to censor rap lyrics. Campbell (1995) reasoned that rap music itself is not solely responsible for transmitting negative representations of black youth culture. Print and television media have framed news pieces about rap music and hip-hop culture in a crime discourse. This crime discourse is the same in which African Americans, in general, were framed before rap music.
Filtering through a capitalistic era where experiences are manufactured and imagined for a consumer audience – particularly relating to the commercialization of rap where Bradley (2010) states that “what was once representative of inner-city black America is now also synonymous with manicured lawns with the burbs”. Commercialization of rap which makes it easier for the media to control how rap is perceived. It is argued that where there is a perception of threat connected to street-level urban music authored by those with supposed links to criminality, the lines between real crime and its mediated representation can become blurred (Ilan, 2012). The authorities and the music industry may respond by effectively criminalising and excluding an entire genre through media influence. In the case of UK urban music, artists have adopted a strategy to succeed within the mainstream industry which, as opposed to US rappers, involves muting their links to street culture. Street Culture being “the values, dispositions, and styles associated with particular sections of disadvantaged populations” (Ilan, 2015: p.8). Where street cultural practices, especially those related to arts, music and fashion, are often caught up in controversies over “good taste” or public decency. They are easily re-casted as “crimes’, which often ends up triggering these moral panics – stemming from whatever agenda is being pushed by mass media
In terms of the early social contexts surrounding rap, it stemmed from the deindustrialization of New York in the 1970s (withdrawal of state funding for housing, education and training) and the rising inequality, discrimination and limiting of opportunity. Which in turn, the government feared that the marginalization and deindustrialization of these communities would lead to a rise in crime, so this led to expansions of prisons and a bigger investment in law enforcement. (Quinn, 2005). Residing from derelict areas where there was rising unemployment, homelessness, and a substantial prison population. Therefore, the development of rap at this time naturally had an expressive and insubordinate undertone (Knobloch & Shaw, 2008) – using rap as a release of cultural hardship and tension, rap became more than music but a form of activism. A good example of this ideology is presented in Eminem’s “Who Knew.” In this song, the artist opposes American society’s system of beliefs, rebelling against a society that produces violence. Quinn (2005) uncovers gangsta rap’s deep roots in black working-class expressive culture, she stresses the music’s aesthetic pleasures and complexities that have often been ignored in critical accounts. Moreover, in terms of the more cultural contexts, original street/gangsta rap evokes a survivalist culture in response to the constricted opportunities in these neighbourhoods which restricted people (minorities) within to pursue gangs, drugs or entertainment (e.g. music) (Kajikawa 2015).
An avid example of rap music being conceptualised around violence and rebellion was the Tupac Rap Era: The spiralling violence and conflict fomented a new sense of black political alarm, with many gravitating to black nationalist messages. Young black people started donning African medallions and African-inspired fashion while pushing hip-hop into a politically subversive realm of musical expression. Hip-hop groups and artists like Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Ice Cube and X-Clan started promoting a political message of resistance in its music to a greater extent than any popular genre at the time. Rappers attacked the crack trade, white supremacy and police brutality in scores of songs, from Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” to Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam.”
Tupac immersed himself in this movement, embracing and adorning the politics of the black power reprise in his lyrics. Tupac’s first LP, “2Pacalypse Now” (1991), directly confronted issues like mass incarceration, violence, illegal drugs, police brutality and racism (Light, 1997). Tupac’s era is one of the most significant and notorious in the historical development and progression of rap music – where his eventual death epitomises the possible crime and violence that can occur due to rivalry and contention within the “rap industry’ or “rap scene’.
The belief that rap has a significant link to criminality has long been controverted and there have been studies that have gone into trying to determine how credible these links are:
Many researchers have found that after observing violence in the form of music or music videos, participants reported higher aggression than their counterparts who were exposed to no violence or fewer amounts (Anderson, Carnagey, & Eubanks, 2003; Kistler & Lee, 2009, p. 82; Tropeano, 2006, p. 3) However, this study found that there was no difference on reporting aggressive responses between participants exposed to rap music and those who were exposed to no music. This discrepancy could be attributed to flaws in research design, or it could be due to some acknowledgement of the violent music being necessary in order for it to become influential to a listener. Future research should research at what level of awareness does the environment around an individual influence a listener. In addition, many more researchers have tried to tackle the topic of rap music’s influence on aggression. For example, Kistler and Lee (2009) found that men exposed to hip-hop music videos with high levels of sexual content were more likely to objectify women and accept rape myth beliefs than their counterparts who were exposed to low levels of sexual content (p. 82). These behaviours can be categorized as aggressive and are concerning, a conclusion which supported the hypothesis that rap music causes an increase in aggression. The men watching the videos with high sexual content saw that these behaviours were acceptable and then adopted these ideas and acted in accordance with what they had been exposed to. In another study, it was found that individuals who watched violent music videos had immediate changes in behaviour and reported higher aggression in situations that were presented on a questionnaire (Tropeano, 2006, p. 33). This immediate change in demeanour could be directly linked to the content of the music videos they watch and the content of the lyrics. On the other hand, research such as this is extremely difficult to validate because psychological behaviours and cognitive responses are so specific to an individual – which has what has made this hypothesis so difficult to prove. It would require deep research and extremely large sample sizes.
This stigma surrounding rap and criminality has skyrocketed in the UK in the midst of the rise of UK drill and record numbers of knife crime in London – where its homicide rate overtook New York for the first time in modern history. Drill music is a style of trap music that originated in the South Side of Chicago in the early 2010s and the genre is defined by its dark, violent, nihilistic lyrical content and ominous trap-influenced beats. As a musical genre, it has even been brandished as the “soundtracks of London Murderers” – where gangs commonly incite rival gangs through their lyrics and glamourize criminal acts. The Met police has ordered YouTube to take down dozens of videos and plan to prosecute rappers who stoke gang feuds with their lyrics under anti-terror laws. The rap group 1011 were issued an unprecedented court order, banning them from mentioning death or injury in their lyrics and forcing them to inform the police within 24 hours of releasing new music videos. Under upcoming measures, lyrics which “incite violence’ will not even need to be linked to a specific attack to secure a conviction.
Critics of the police’s approach say they are dangerously blurring the lines between violent-themed lyrics and real-life violence, between music and criminality. The drill question is perhaps a quandary as old as modern entertainment itself: does music reflect your environment or shape it? So maybe it can be argued that rap does have instances where it encourages certain criminality but to say it is the cause, is a completely different matter. I personally believe that even though there are instances where crime and rap music do correspond, it’s a relationship that is far from symbiotic.