Criminology, Law and Society
Violent, misogynistic, racist. Those are a few of the criticisms of rap music, especially the hard-edged “gangsta” rap that has dominated the genre since the early 1990s.
In a poll of African Americans by the Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices, 50 percent of respondents called hip-hop a negative force in American society. The musical genre’s violence even has turned off younger listeners, and sales have see-sawed over the past decade.
But Charis Kubrin, associate professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, has compiled statistics on rap lyrics that document the tragedy beneath the macho swagger. Kubrin’s research is an account of generational hopelessness driven by the sharp decline in the kinds of industrial jobs that helped a previous generation of African Americans establish themselves in the middle class.
Anyone who’s watched the TV series “The Wire” knows the drill: Poor neighborhoods have been hit faster and harder by the changes in America’s economy over the past few decades, and drug dealing has become one of the few ways for a young man in the ghetto to make a living. Society’s response was harsh: mandatory sentencing laws and stricter penalties for crack cocaine, a poor man’s drug, than for the rich man’s high of powder cocaine. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the percentage of black drug arrests rose more than 50 percent, while the number of white drug arrests rose 27 percent.
But statistics are only part of the story. Kubrin’s analysis of 403 rap songs, combined with the words of the rappers themselves, offers a portrait as vivid as fiction, and in some of the rawest songs — too raw to be quoted here — even more powerful. Kubrin’s most striking insight is the pervasiveness of nihilism, the sense that social conditions are so bad that destruction is preferable to any attempt to make a better life. Nihilism is more common than misogyny in rap, and judging from the song lyrics, the rapper’s psyche is rife with images of death and dying.
In fact, rappers often riff on the classic scene of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn witnessing their own funeral in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It may be worth noting that during the height of the Gilded Age, Mark Twain set aside the manuscript for Tom Sawyer’s sequel, “Huckleberry Finn,” reasoning that readers wouldn’t be interested in this tale of hard times. Only after the nation’s economy soured did Twain finish his tale of a ragamuffin boy and a runaway slave.
Coincidence? Perhaps not. After a few years of plummeting sales, rap record sales surged as economic malaise became widespread in 2010. As America’s economic woes trickle up to the middle class, Kubrin says, rap sounds like a chronicle of hard times foretold.
Kubrin has written three research papers on rap and recently testified as an expert witness in a case involving rap lyrics. Her 2005 analysis “Gangstas, Thugs & Hustlas: Identity and the Code of the Street in Rap Music” was among UC’s 25 most frequently downloaded articles in 2010, according to UC Press.
Photo: UC Irvine Communications
'Things Done Changed,' by Notorious B.I.G., describes the blows absorbed by African American communities, including the line 'what happened to the summertime cookouts?' It's a compelling question. What happened?
Initially, the economic changes in the U.S. over the past 30 years disproportionately affected less educated minority males. There were no more factory jobs, and then crack came in. Whether you call it deindustrialization or “things done changed,” you’re talking about an enormous change in communities.
Chuck D of Public Enemy has been quoted as saying that 'rap is the CNN of the ghetto.' But you've made a case that rap has relevance to us all.
Now the recession is making joblessness much more common for whites. When you think about what’s been happening broadly in society — increasing inequality levels, de-industrialization, outsourcing — these trends are affecting us all.
Considering that context, it makes sense that your research showed that nihilism was prevalent in rap. But does the fact that it's more common than misogyny surprise people?
It does surprise people. I analyzed 403 songs on albums that went platinum between 1992 and 2000. The most common subject was respect, and that was closely trailed by violence. Wealth came in third. But nihilism, which appeared in 25 percent of the songs, was more common than objectification of women, which was just over 22 percent. I should point out that nihilism was not a passing reference, but a major theme.
When did you get interested in rap? I couldn't help notice that you're white, and a woman.
I grew up in Los Angeles. We had busing, and for a while there, I was going to a school in an African American neighborhood. I got exposed to a lot of this music. There was a group called Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They had a song called “The Message.” It’s about what life is like, in terms of being a jungle out there and daily life, people stressing about how to pay their bills. The refrain is: “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge / I’m tryin’ not to lose my head / It’s like a jungle sometimes / it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” I loved that song.
From public school in Los Angeles to Smith College must have been a leap.
I became an ardent feminist at Smith. My anthem was Queen Latifah’s song “Ladies First.” I used to hum it to myself when I walked around campus.
That song is great. It's very witty, and a martial assertion of women's rights. So you brought the two worlds together?
Right. And I became a sociologist, so I turned it into a career. I taught at George Washington University in D.C. for 11 years, and I joined the UC Irvine faculty last summer. I really wanted to work with graduate students, and Irvine’s program is ranked very highly among criminology and criminal justice doctoral programs. We’ll see if I get less hard-core over time, now that I’m in the Irvine suburbs.