Listening to Rap: Cultures of Crime, Cultures of Resistance
Julian Tanner, University of Toronto Mark Asbridge, Dalhousie University Scot Wortley, University of Toronto This research compares representations of rap music with the self-reported criminal behavior and resistant attitudes of the music’s core audience. Our database is a large sample of Toronto high school students (n = 3,393) from which we identify a group of listeners, whose combination of musical likes and dislikes distinguish them as rap univores. We then examine the relationship between their cultural preference for rap music and involvement in a culture of crime and their perceptions of social injustice and inequity. We find that the rap univores, also known as urban music enthusiasts, report significantly more delinquent behavior and stronger feelings of inequity and injustice than listeners with other musical tastes. However, we also find that the nature and strengths of those relationships vary according to the racial identity of different groups within urban music enthusiasts. Black and white subgroups align themselves with resistance representations while Asians do not; whites and Asians report significant involvement in crime and delinquency, while blacks do not. Finally, we discuss our findings in light of research on media effects and audience reception, youth subcultures and post-subcultural analysis, and the sociology of cultural consumption.
Thinking About Rap
The emergence and spectacular growth of rap is probably the most important development in popular music since the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940s. Radio airplay, music video programming and sales figures are obvious testimonies to its popularity and commercial success. This was made particularly evident in October 2003 when, according to the recording industry bible Billboard magazine, all top 10 acts in the United States were rap or hip-hop artists;1 and again in 2006, when the Academy award for Best Song went to It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp, a rap song by the group Hustle & Flow. Such developments may also signal rap’s increasing social acceptance and cultural legitimization (Baumann 2007). However, its reputation and status in the musical field has, hitherto, been a controversial one. Like new music before it (jazz, rock ‘n’ roll), rap has been critically reviewed as a corrosive influence on young and impressionable listeners (Best 1990; Tatum 1999; Tanner 2001; Sacco and Kennedy 2002; Alexander 2003). Whether rap has been reviled as much as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll once were is a moot point; rather more certain is its pre-eminent role as a problematic contemporary musical genre. Direct correspondence to Julian Tanner, Department of Social Science University of Toronto at Scarborough, 1265 Military Trail, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, M1C 1A4. Telephone: (416) 287-7293. E-mail: Julian.Tanner@utoronto.ca. © The University of North Carolina Press Social Forces 88(2) 693–722, December 2009
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In an important study of representations of popular music, Binder (1993) examined how print journalists wrote about rap and heavy metal in the 1980s and 1990s. While both are devalued genres (Roe 1995), she nevertheless contends that they are framed differently: the presumed harmful effects of heavy metal are limited to the listeners themselves, whereas rap is seen as more socially damaging (for a similar distinction, see Rose 1994). The lyrical content of the two genres is established as one source of this differential framing: rap lyrics are found to be more explicit and provocative (greater usage of “hard” swear words, for example) than heavy metal lyrics. The second factor involves assumptions made (by journalists) about the racial composition of audiences for heavy metal and rap – the former believed to be white suburban youth, the latter urban black youth. According to Binder, rap invites more public concern and censorious complaint than heavy metal...
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