It surrounds us on the streets, blares from television sets across the world and is used to sell a wide array of products; this billion dollar industry is hip-hop.
Hip-hop began in the late 70’s in New York as a tool to tell the stories of African-American and Latino inner-city youth and the communities they lived in. It was about the struggle of reaching the American dream of success. Hip-hop became a catharsis where artists released the frustrations of racism, sexism, broken families and poverty. In time it evolved into a culture encompassing dance, music, speech, fashion, visual arts and big business. The culture became contagious, quickly spreading north to Canada and all over the world.
The impact of hip-hop is obvious when you look around Jarvis; students fill the hallways wearing baggy clothes and speaking slang. It’s not uncommon to hear students saying “shawty in da hizzous” and “fo’ shizzle ma nizzle,” both phrases popularized by rapper Snoop Dogg. Nelson George wrote in his book Hip-Hop America about the influence of hip-hop: “Now we know that rap music, and hip-hop style as a whole, has utterly broken through from its ghetto roots to assert a lasting influence on American clothing, magazine publishing, television, language, sexuality, and social policy as well as its obvious presence in records and movies…advertisers, magazines, MTV, fashion companies, beer and soft drink manufacturers, and multimedia conglomerates like Time-Warner have embraced hip-hop as a way to reach not just black young people, but all young people.”
Then came Gangsta Rap; this kind of music glorifies a life of violence. Artists such as Ice T, Notorious B.I.G. and Dr. Dre wrote songs about urban life, describing gang life, violence, drugs and belittling women. In 1992 Ice T released his song “Cop Killer,” which became a success. Here are some of the words to the song: “I got my headlights turned off. I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off. I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off, I got this long-assed knife, and your neck looks just right.”
More recently, rapper 50 Cent sparked some controversy when a Canadian MP attempted to ban him from touring Canada. He was only permitted to perform after applying for a temporary resident’s permit. Here are some of the lyrics to his songs: “You try to touch me, ya get ya brains blown”; “Gimme one year, in this industry, I’ll buy enough guns to declare war on a small country”; “Wit tha back of the steel I’ll whip yo head boy!! Yo ass could get killed”; and “Shoot car windows out to flatline. Gun pop, heart stop, homie this is heavy. You on your way to meet your maker, n**** are you ready?”
Gangsta rap is full of artists such as 50 Cent. Coming out of street life, many of them have been in and out of jail several times. These famous rappers pride themselves on their dark pasts and display themselves as the real deal to build up their credibility and fame. The music videos show a gangster life as being easy, surrounded by women and a constant supply of money. When I asked Grade 10 student, Anteneh Gebremicheal how he feels gangsta rap affects him he replied, “It makes me want to be on TV, get money and girls.” Young people watch this and internalize these messages and while the majority can distinguish between the reality and fiction some believe it is desirable behaviour.
Much of this music also promotes the dehumanizing of women. The music videos are sickening; women are portrayed as objects, wearing close to nothing. They dance in the backgrounds, often draped around a rapper like trophies. These images are accompanied with a variety of explicit lyrics referring to women as bitches, hoes and worthless sluts. The rappers often glorify pimp life, referring to women as prostitutes and promoting violence against women they feel are “disobedient.” The exploitation of women has become acceptable as a part of rap.
Gangsta rap is filled with lyrics such as, “Who let these hoes in my room?”; “Fat, gorilla, monkey mouth bitches”; and “We slapping the hell out of her ‘coz we can, prostitute.” I asked Grade 11 student Tiela Reece why she chooses to listen to this genre of music and she replied, “I like the way it sounds, the beats and rhythms and because it’s stuff I can relate to.” But does this affect the morale of women and girls? When I asked Tiela how she felt it affected girls she said, “They focus on the way a girl looks, never on her intelligence; it makes girls want to look sexy and slutty.”
These lyrics and videos make young girls believe that this is the way women are supposed to behave and look. Young girls imitate the females in the videos. It’s no longer surprising to see a 12-year-old girl wearing pounds of make-up and dressed in provocative clothing in her attempt to become like her idols. It sends the message to girls at an early age that their value is based on an artificial type of beauty and what they can do for a man.
Many young people are now beginning to realize the negative messages portrayed through gangsta rap and are turning to other alternatives such as jazz, and R&B. When I asked Grade 12 student Mathew Jean-Leger why he doesn’t like gangsta rap he replied, “It bigs up violence, making it look cool so kids go around copying it. They treat women disgusting; instead of treating them like the Queens they’re treated like crap.”
Mathew sums it up when he says, “I refuse to listen to it; it’s nasty and makes me sick to my stomach.” Don’t get me wrong I don’t think that all rap is bad. There are many good rap artists, such as Common and Talib Kweli, who are out there trying to send positive messages to youth, but unfortunately they do not receive the attention they deserve. Hip-hip has touched the lives of millions of youth around the world. It’s a tool that can be used to enlighten, but is now a tool of promoting violence and the exploitation of women.