Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos

Article excerpt

Since its introduction in 1981, rap music has grown greatly in popularity. However, rap music has also been a source of controversy (Dixon & Brooks, 2002; Dixon & Linz, 1997; Hansen & Hansen, 2000; Rose, 1994). Specifically, it has been accused of promoting controversial messages dealing with violence, sex and materialism (Johnson, Jackson & Gatto, 1995; Smith, 2005). Previous research has suggested that this content promotes negative behaviors; however, there are mixed findings in prior research suggesting that rap music contains both controversial and community promoting themes (Johnson et al., 1995; Zillmann et al., 1995). Therefore, it is necessary to examine what thematic messages are prevalent in current rap music.

Artists and characters in the videos are another aspect of rap music that demand attention. Unlike other music genres, rap music is dominated by Black artists and performers (Kubrin, 2005). This aspect is important because of the colorism that often occurs in media. Often colorism is an issue the Black viewers face whereby individuals with lighter skin may be given advantages over those with darker skin (Kubrin, 2005; Dixon & Maddox, 2005; Oliver, 1994). However, the Afrocentric features and skin tone of individuals in rap music have never been analyzed.

Finally, recent debates on rap music have accused it of being overly sexist and degrading towards women. As a genre, rap music is often linked to Black male identity which may lead to an increase in themes of sexism and misogyny for women (hooks, 1992). Furthermore, research suggests that Afrocentric bias may occur differently for men and women (Maddox, 2004). Specifically, light skinned African American females are more likely to be associated with the White beauty standard. Alternatively, dark skinned males are often associated with criminality. The current study examines how these gender differences appear for African American men and women in rap music.

The three gaps in the rap music literature related to thematic content, Afrocentricity, and gender warrant a more current analysis of rap music videos. The goal of this study is to create a better understanding of these images in rap music by reporting on a systematic content analysis of rap music videos appearing on the annual countdowns of three music television channels in 2006. However, first it is necessary to review the rap content uncovered in previous research.

Controversial Themes in Rap Music

Rap music is a genre that was born out of slave spirituals, blues, jazz, and "soul" as a musical expression of African American traditions (Rose, 1994; Zillman et al., 1995). Dixon and Linz (1997) suggest that this tradition has been passed down to contemporary African American youth, and contains cultural elements such as "toasting," "signifying," and "playing the dozens." A variety of messages have been found to exist within rap music, and there is some debate as to which messages are used most often. Some research suggests that rap music portrayals are negative and include images promoting violence, sex and materialism (Baxter, DeRiemer, Landini, Leslie & Singletary, 1985; Johnson et al., 1995; Kubrin, 2005; Smith, 2005; Zillman et al., 1995). These researchers suggest that these messages propagate a desire for wealth, while glamorizing sexual actions and violence as a means to obtain this affluence. Smith's review found an extreme amount of emphasis on violence, sexual content, and substance abuse aired on Music Television (MTV). A content analysis of "gangsta" rap by Kubrin found that this particular subtype of rap music focuses on creating social orders in which the use of violence is not only accepted but also seen as necessary to African American life.

Research also suggests that rap music contains more positive images. Zillman et al. (1995) suggest that rap music may be used as a vehicle to fight oppression from the dominant culture. …