Hip-Hop Fridays: Are Rap Artists Responsible For The Explosion Of Gang Culture? by Ed Caesar

Why are we asking this now?

A year-long study by Reach, which was commissioned by the Government, concluded yesterday that black teenagers urgently need new role models. The report called for a shift from "rap stars, sports personalities and celebrities, to successful businessmen, lawyers and doctors". A spokesman for the Department for Local Government said that Hazel Blears would adopt the main proposals of the report, adding: "We take the findings very seriously."

Why pick on rap artists?

Since hip-hop began in the poor, predominantly black neighbourhoods of New York in the 1970s, the genre has had an association with gang culture and violence. Lyrics heavy with lurid tales of "gang-banging" have often included references to drive-by shootings and drug-dealing. Rap, grime and other urban genres are often the music choices of British gang members. Fatalities and injuries from gun and knife violence at hip-hop gigs have not helped the genre's image.

Do rappers themselves promote a negative lifestyle?

Yes and no. Ever since the deaths of two prominent American rappers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, in the mid-1990s, mainstream hip-hop has become increasingly commercial. Rappers such as P Diddy, Jay-Z and 50 Cent have become multimillionaire businessmen with their own empires. These high-fliers argue that they promote an excellent lifestyle for teenagers - because, despite under-privileged upbringings, they have created successful business careers. Indeed, many in the top rank of hip-hop are now pop stars with views on global "issues". It is no longer a surprise to see 50 Cent sitting next to Bono at a charity dinner to raise money for Africa.

While these individual cases show how certain rap artists can become global celebrities through hip-hop, the most striking evidence of hip-hop's entry into the mainstream is in London's middle-class nightclubs, where "Commercial R'n'B" has become the soundtrack of princes, Eurotrash and bankers. One West End club owner will now only play Commercial R'n'B to his affluent clientele, "because it's the only music we play, where we know people will behave".

In Britain's less commercial urban scenes, however, the boundaries between music and behaviour are less straightforward. Metropolitan Police officers have found direct links between specific lyrics - particularly by British grime artists - and specific murders in the black community. Meanwhile, in America, a recent study by the Prevention Research Centre (Pire) concluded that, after assessing 1,000 students, rap music was consistently associated with alcohol use, illicit drug use, and aggressive behaviour.

Are rap artists just a convenient whipping boy for politicians?

They are an easy target. Before this most recent study, both David Cameron and David Blunkett had weighed in on the subject. Last year, Cameron made a comment at the British Society of Magazine Editors, aimed at Radio 1. He said: "Do you realise some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?" Meanwhile, in 2003, Blunkett responded to the New Year's Eve murder of two teenage girls in Birmingham by calling rap lyrics "awful". Kim Howells, then Culture minister, also promised to defuse the gangster culture, decrying "those hateful lyrics... those idiot macho rappers come out with".

Surely gang culture is fostered by more than just music?

Yes. Socio-economic factors are a far more reliable guide to where gang activity will take place than what music teenagers are listening to. John Pitts, who is the professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Bedfordshire, recently conducted research into gang members in south London, and concluded that many teenagers were "reluctant gangsters".

"These young people are stuck on their estates," he said in The Guardian, yesterday. "They can't get out because the waiting lists for social housing are so long there is nowhere for them to go. When young people resist gang involvement they can be attacked or their families can be. In south London, 75 per cent of gangs involved kids who were not in school and were working as runners for drugs gangs. This is when their aspirations start to become unconventional, success for them is moving up the ladder within that gang until they take over and run their own young people."

What does the hip-hop community think about its 'negative' status?

Hip-hop artists frequently defend themselves by noting, as artists, they are simply describing the world around them, rather than advocating any kind of lifestyle. This is an argument taken up by Radio 1, which was singled out for its hip-hop broadcasts by David Cameron. "Hip-hop," said a spokesman, "is a huge international genre with a vibrant UK scene and that music reflects the sometimes harsher realities of people's lives and cultures."

In recent years, the urban music community has become less defensive, but it still has a case to argue. Hattie Collins, editor of RWD Magazine, Britain's largest urban music publication, says that "music does play a small part, and it's something we need to look at, but so does the internet and film. There is a constant barrage of influences that kids are exposed, or are exposing themselves to. I can't see a direct link between rap artists and violence. Young urban kids - and by the way, that means white, Asian, and black kids - could behave in the way they are behaving without the music."

Some artists are themselves confronting their perceived negative influence. The Canadian hip-hop MC and producer Kardinal Offishall, for instance, said: "It's a situation that some MCs use as a crutch to say, 'I'm talking about what's already in the streets, I'm talking about what's real.' But at the same time, by doing that, they're creating new situations. It's not fair to blame hip-hop as the sole reason for gun violence, but at the same time, we do have to take some responsibility."

One of the reasons hip-hop artists are loath to decry their lyrics is that rap has always been concerned with voicing the views of the underclass to authority. Freedom of expression is, therefore, paramount. Moreover, violence, and the promotion of a violent lifestyle, is only one area which is represented by hip-hop. That has never been more true than now, more than 30 years since the birth of the genre, as hip-hop has become a global art form - fostered everywhere from the Congo, to the Paris banlieues, to suburban America.

Is hip-hop a bad influence?


* Many hip-hop artists rap about violent feuds, involving guns and drugs

* Hip-hop promotes an acquisitive, misogynistic, money-driven lifestyle

* More hip-hop artists have been murdered in the past 30 years than artists from any other genre


* Successful hip-hop artists can show teenagers the path to a successful career

* Hip-hop is about much more than violence - artists rap about a wide spectrum of issues, including politics and race awareness

* Connections between hip-hop and violence are overly simplistic

This article appeared in The UK newspaper, The Independent

Friday, August 10, 2007