It is a sunny hot Monday in July 2011 on the south side of Chicago. Here at 63rd and Stony Island, one of the many Chicago Park District summer day-camp programs begins another week of camp. Halfway through the program, each cohort of kids, separated by age and gender, is practicing their choreographed dances to perform as a camp finale. Today I am hanging with the seven- and eight-year-old boys, as well as their counselors, Silas and Charjanae. As Silas explains the “assignment” to the boys, they immediately start shouting out songs and with surprising unanimity agree on “Pretty Boy Swag” by Soulja Boy. As they begin moving to the song, it becomes apparent that they were alarmingly familiar with the provocative lyrics and sexual music video. Yet I can’t help smiling as I watch them add their own creative footwork and styles to the swag they already have down so well. I find myself torn between my delight in their creativity and the shock of watching them point and thrust their hips suggestively—even in the cleaned up version. The tension welled up in me, seizing my gut and rising to my tear ducts when one of the eight-year-olds proposed that some of the girls could stand, showing off, in front of them—just like the music video. At least I was mildly relieved when Silas vetoed the boys’ enthusiastic suggestion.
The Issue -
This one afternoon with seven- and eight-year-old boys was real and depicted a clear snapshot exemplifying the reality of the effects of mainstream hip-hop on inner-city youth within Chicago. The lyrics, the artists, and the music videos all participate in negatively affecting the perceptions of African American youth on issues influencing manhood and womanhood. Yet it is not solely responsible for the origin of the issues examined. Further, it must be understood that hip-hop’s influence is accompanied by many additional voices on one side and met with deafening silence on the other.
A Feedback Loop -
There are a couple of questions concerning the feedback loop seen within this relationship between hip-hop and the culture of Chicago’s inner-city youth that must be answered before proceeding. Senior Editor and Writer of Diverse magazine, Ronald Roach, raises the following 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 to this is complicated. As explained by college students that grew up in Chicago, hip-hop is not the creator of the culture we see surrounding it but was birthed out of an existing culture. Like most feedback loops, the relationship is cyclical and complex.
Historically, hip-hop did not originate as negative and explicit rap. John Allen, a college student on the south side of Chicago, explains that when it first started, hip-hop was laced with hard subjects but had a beauty to it as well. People were trying to explain how they were feeling during a difficult era and rap provided a non-violent, yet raw and honest way to express the struggles of their reality (Allen). According to McWhorter, a marked shift in the effect and content of hip-hop took place in the eighties when “the ghetto had become a ruleless war zone, where black people were their own worst enemies.” He goes on to say that “it would be silly, of course, to blame hip-hop for this sad downward spiral, but by glamorizing life in the ‘war zone,’ it has made it harder for many of the kids stuck there to extricate themselves” (McWhorter). When talking to native Chicagoans, each agreed and confirmed this assessment to be true of their experience with hip-hop as well. Tyjaun Gibson, a current Moody student who grew up on the west side of Chicago explains that hip-hop is obviously not the instigator of issues such as drugs, violence, gangs, and sex, but that it “galvanizes what has already been circulating in the culture” and keeps that culture in a place where these issues can continue to thrive (Gibson).
Although this discussion of the specific issues affected by hip-hop may not be wholly comprehensive, it does include the topics that seem most pertinent after numerous conversations with youth, college students, and adults within this culture. To begin with, the negative influences and promotion of drugs can be seen within the hip-hop industry. Allen talks about how so many of the mainstream artists rap about illegal substances in a way that glamorizes the lifestyle. The number of raps referencing and glamorizing drugs are countless. Examples include songs like “Pillz,” and “Wasted” by Gucci Mane, as well as “Oh Lets Do It” by Waka Flocka Flame and “Hustle Hard” by Young Jeezy. Adding to this, the phenomenon of the music video now gives visual images of consuming and selling drugs to the kids watching them.
Along with drugs, the issue of gangs also comes up in hip-hop music. Artists within groups like N.W.A. made Gangsta Rap (a sub genre of hip-hop) popular. This genre especially encourages the concept of gangs and drug activity because there is a reputation and status that goes along with it. Tyjaun talked about how Young Jeezy gave honest depictions of hood life from a gangster’s perspective—especially on his first CD. He raps about things like being shot at, becoming incarcerated and selling drugs. Many people could identify with this and saw him as someone who really understood their lifestyles. However, for people already a part of gangs, it creates a type of justification and stimulation of this continued lifestyle (Gibson).
Another area where the impact of hip-hop can be seen involves violence within this culture—something very integrated with the drugs and gangs. Kids hear violent content in the songs so often that when it comes down to it, they think, “My idol says I could do it, so it is okay.” While talking about himself personally, a student explained that during high school, Eminem was his favorite rapper. Since Eminem’s content frequently talked about violent and “crazy off the wall stuff,” it contributed to an impulsive attitude. “Same Song & Dance” by Eminem exemplifies this attitude of violence as it talks about murdering Lindsey Lohan and Brittany Spears. Although this student himself was not impulsive enough to go the extremes that Eminem talks about, it fueled an outlook that said “just lose yourself in the moment,” and “if you want to do something crazy, go for it.” Another example would be Waka Flocka Flame’s “Love Dem Gun Sounds.” John Allen observed that while other genres of music can be violent, hip-hop is unique in that it goes beyond talking about being violent. Because of the unique nature of spitting, rapping about beating someone up can be brutally real. When the artist says “I’m getting my gun, I’m walking down the street and I’m about to shoot you,” it is alarmingly believable.
On the south side at Jackson Park, these correlations can also be seen. There are teenagers who literally freak out and scream at or jump on a nine-year-old kid who says something that will potentially injure their ego or reputation. Violent responses, or at least threats, follow and generally stem from an attitude that declares “nobody crosses me without consequences.”
Chicagoan youths’ view of and respect for authority are just two more examples of the effects of hip-hop in their lives. Probably the most cited example of this comes from N.W.A. in 1988. “F*** the Police,” although not recent, was referenced by almost all interviewees pertaining to the idea of authority. They explained that its effects continue today. The pattern began with opposition to white power, then oppression, and now continues with being locked up and discriminated against. It seems as if the trend has gone from frustration with big government, to city systems, and now specific industries as narrow as individual police departments. When certain rappers write songs about immunity to the police, the attitude trickles down to kids. Where rap culture is now, the central theme is often, “Look at me, I’m bad. I have this money, status, these guns, and there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t touch me or I’ll make you pay. I DON’T CARE” (Gibson). The power of these voices goes so much deeper than just the police; they speak into kids respecting teachers, peers, and even parents.
John explains that many of the kids he grew up with were never taught to respect anyone but their mother and argues that “hip-hop won’t teach you anything other than that” (Allen). The African American culture is often maternal, and yet even mothers and grandmothers are being disrespected and ignored. This is troubling and more recent. Miss Andria, the park director at Jackson Park explains that the kids she works with now, and the way they handle authority, has drastically changed over the twenty years she has worked there. She sees the correlation between the music and the kids as a contributor of this change (Frink). Part of it goes back to the accessibility. With the recent rise of the Internet and easy access to music, the dynamics have changed. Even the age range that is affected is now younger because of these factors. E-Dub (long time staff at Jackson Park), also expressed frustration with the changes he sees in the kids at the park and their interactions with authority. The lyrics from Souja Boy’s, “Yahhh!” exemplify this disrespect of authority on the smaller scale of parents, teachers, and others. Even though at the end of the song, Soulja Boy says he’s “just playin’” and that kids should go to school, ultimately that is not what they remember. The message given by mainstream rap is that you live for yourself and that the only reason to accept voices of authority in your life is if they have something you want or the money or status to help you get it (Allen).
The Music Video -
It is important to pause here and state that the rise in popularity of the music video influences every aspect of this conversation. Ten years ago the phenomenon of YouTube was a recent creation, and the popularity and use of the Internet also looked drastically different compared to today. These videos give graphic images to everything that is being discussed; the power of the visual sense that it tapped into must not be ignored. The music video is only a snapshot and generally paints negative actions in a light where no consequences exist. You only see what seems to be a good side to things that in reality is extremely negative. “Kids see someone they idolize doing something creative; they stop whatever they are doing and turn around and look at them for a moment, and then they worship that person at least for a while” (Allen). Imitation is one of the highest forms of flattery, and these kids from the ages of seven through high school are master imitators. They memorize the words, the moves, the footwork, and the dances. And whether they know it or not, it is internalized as it shapes who they are and who they will become.
Even the value of education is impacted by hip-hop. Recently, Drake came out with a song that is continually played on the radio. Some of the lyrics from “Play Ball” are as follows:
…I’m easily influenced by the niggas I’m around,
see that Aston Martin when I start it hear the sound,
I ain’t never graduated ain’t got no cap and gown,
but the girls in my class who were smart enough to pass
be at all my f***ing parties, grabbing money off the ground…
This type of message – coupled with all of the other cards stacked against them in the area of education – only damages their drive and desire to succeed. Chicago has the third largest school system, as well as one of the most poorly funded; facing over a ten million dollar deficit. Schools are being shut down and combined, class sizes grow and teachers’ efforts are being diverted to crowd control rather than teaching. The graduation rate in the Chicago Public School system (CPS) is 51%, and this only pertains to students who make it to high school. Violence has also spiked, and in the 2007-2008 school year, there were 298 school shootings and over 40 deaths in CPS. Hip-hop is devaluing the importance of education. For each of these kids, education provides an opportunity to rise above and extricate themselves from difficult situations. Yet it is handled flippantly by many of the heroes that these kids idolize. This matters!
The final and most morally devastating area where hip-hop is influencing the youth of Chicago involves how women are perceived and treated within this community. Allen explained that he believes hip-hop’s effect on women deals mainly with women of African American and Latino decent. He formed this opinion mainly on the fact that most music videos primarily use these ethnicities. Within the hip-hop industry and the rap culture, women have become a marketing tool. Again, this comes back to music videos. Very sexual images that portray women in a certain light permeate the majority of these videos; and their use is strategic. The industry is promoting and capitalizing on the idea that sex sells by using these images to sell songs and records. Boys in school will encourage each other to go watch certain videos because of the sexual content. Basically, rap culture uses women sexually as a marketing tool to elevate agendas and glorify both the rap artists and the male in general. The examples for this are plentiful; Drake’s song and video “Best I Ever Had” is flooded with breast shots, and Lil Wayne’s “Alphabet B****” goes through the twenty-six letters representing women he’s used. Ultimately, hip-hop communicates that women belong underneath men for the whole purpose of glorifying them. The message is clear: women are for entertainment, pleasure, and the glorification of sex. Other songs: “Every Girl” and “Right Above It” – Lil Wayne, “I’m Ready For You” – Drake, “Young Money” – Artists in Young Money.
Young girls now see this image of women portrayed in the songs and videos as what they must be to gain the affection and “love” of men. Nikki Minaj is the top artist that currently contributes to this idea, primarily because she can spit and because of her status as a sexual icon. Some of her songs are filled with grotesque sexual content, but the roles are reversed, and they portray what she does to men. She has become the new and twisted portrayal for female empowerment. She has replaced good female rappers, such as Lady of Rage, who had powerful messages that fought against this treatment of women. As part of Young Money Entertainment, a label that is almost entirely degrading of women, Minaj communicates the message that since she can get these men to do certain things to her and for her, she is above them and therefore empowered. Songs where this idea can be seen: “Up Out My Face” with Mariah Carey, “Super Bass,” “Knock Out,” “Did It On Em,” and “Romans Road.”
John explains that all of this is especially detrimental when girls grow up without any solid male figures in their lives (Allen). All they know men to be and do is encompassed within the lyrics and images portrayed through hip-hop. Words have power. If you are always referred to as a ho’ or a bitch, you begin to believe it. Danija grew up in Cabrini and now rotates between the West Side and South Side, depending on who her mom is staying with at the time. She is repeatedly called “Ho”; it is her nickname. Danija is six years old. Although this degrading language is not used just because of hip-hop, its use by such esteemed icons encourages and defines it as “cool.”
Even though the industry is supposedly only “speaking authentically to their viewers,” as president and CEO of Viacom Inc., Philippe Dauman, claims, rap music as well as other traits within the hip-hop industry do influence youth and teens within the inner city of Chicago. It does make it harder for them to extricate themselves from what is often a warzone. “Mainstream hip-hop promotes ideas and issues that are destructive, and they are doing it really well” (Allen). Walk into any inner-city school in Chicago, and the influence of mainstream hip-hop and rap culture can be seen. Lip piercings come from Lil Wayne and a popped collar represents Kanye West. If guys are wearing soji hats they idolize Common, and skinny jeans come from New Boyz. The Mohawk was originally Roscoe Dash and Travis Porter while dreads mirror Lil Wayne. For girls, if you see all black hair with the huge bangs its Nicki Minaj. All of these are just samples of how you see “theology coming out their fingertips.” Everyone is worshiping something or someone.
Breaking Molds -
There are some artists, such as Common and Lupe Fiasco, who are breaking some of these molds with messages that challenge mainstream and the industry by pushing against these negative concepts. Also, in the more recent years there has been a rise of Christian artists producing hip-hop that is artistically and musically on a level of high standards and quality. Most come out of Reach Records and these artists are unashamedly rapping the Gospel. They love hip-hop and they love Christ. Lecrae, Tadashi, Trip Lee, and others are part of a group who want to glorify God and minister to people in the way that they have grown up; by meeting them in the culture where they are, just as Paul did throughout his ministry. As Tyjaun explains, “You cannot walk up to somebody who has just been gang-banging and play Chris Tomlin, expecting that to fly. We need a way to minister to people who listen to rap on a daily basis.” Much of their ministry is to Christians; however, this must not be devalued. For many, this type of rap is the only means of staying sane as they first struggle to replace negative influences with things that are edifying and godly. They are meeting an important need for many who would have no Christ-centered music without what they are doing. Are they influencing the broader culture? Perhaps not on a large scale, but it is a gradual process. Subtly it has begun to permeate the mainstream culture. Trip Lee’s song and video “The Invasion (Hero)” made it on BET’s 106 and Park, and a former manager in the mainstream hip-hop scene has become a believer through his relationship with Lecrae.
In Jeremiah 29.7, it says “Work for the well-being of the city where I have sent you to and pray to the Lord or this. For if it is well within the city you live in, it will be well with you.” God has given me a passion for the city of Chicago and specifically the South Side, to pray and work for its wellbeing. He cares about this city, and he cares about these children.
As I’ve worked on this paper it has taken me deeper into a culture and city that God has been consistently breaking my heart for over the past two years. The interviews I did, the conversations that I had, and the observations I have been able to make through the process of spending time in Chicago, and on the South Side especially, have all been incrementally forming in me a deeper desire to understand the systems and cycles that I have found. The project part of this paper is not yet fully formed; however, eventually I desire to compile the testimonies and interviews that I’ve done as well as adding to them. I would love to see artists who have a passion for youth, speaking into the lives of aspiring children as voices of influence that they so desperately need. I envision this coming together in some type of video that can be used to both educate on this issue and advocate involvement within the area of music within the lives of these kids.
Allen, John. “The Effects of Hip Hop on Inner-City Youth in Chicago.” Personal interview. 30 Apr. 2011.
E-Dubb. “Inner-City Youth within Chicago.” Personal interview. 5 Apr. 2011.
Gibson, Tyjuan. “The Effects of Hip Hop on Inner-City Youth in Chicago.” Personal interview. 4 May 2011.
“Hearing Criticizes Sex, Violence in Hip-hop – Entertainment – Music – TODAY.com.” MSNBC: Today. Associated Press, 25 Sept. 2007. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20975017/ns/today-entertainment/>.
Hodge, Daniel White. The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010. Print.
“Inner-City Youth within Chicago.” Personal interview. 9 Apr. 2011.
McWhorter, John H. “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back by John H. McWhorter, City Journal Summer 2003.” City Journal. June-July 2003. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_3_how_hip_hop.html>.
Roach, Ronald. “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 | Black Issues in Higher Education | Find Articles at BNET.” Find Articles at BNET | News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.
Stephens, Dionne P., and April L. Few. “The Effects of Images of African American Women in Hip Hop on Early Adolescents’ Attitudes Toward Physical Attractiveness and Interpersonal Relationships.” Sex Roles 56.3-4 (2007): 251-64. Print.