Decoding Hip-Hop's Cultural Impact: Scholars Are Poised to Take a Close Look at the Influence of Hip-Hop on the Social Identity, Values of Today's Youth

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As a cultural movement, hip-hop manages to get billed as both a positive and negative influence on young people, especially on Black and Latino youth. On one hand, there are African American activists, artists and entrepreneurs, such as Russell Simmons, who seek to build a progressive political movement among young hip-hop fans and who have had modest success with voter registration efforts. On the other hand, there's no shortage of critics who denounce the negative portrayals of Black people, especially women, in hip-hop lyrics and videos.

Recently, a few critics in major U.S. newspapers took note of a well-publicized marketing firm study that cited the cultural influence of hip-hop and reported on sexuality among African American youth in households earning less than $25,000 per year in 10 cities. The study revealed that Black adolescents are becoming sexually active at ages younger than other youth and are suffering from HIV/AIDS at a rate higher than other groups.

"The teens did display attitudes consistent with the macho pose of hip-hop rappers. Their motto: 'Use or be used,' among others. And 'Get it while you can.' And consistent with a culture that uses 'bitches' and 'hos' as labels for every woman but one's mama, the study reveals 'Black females are dissed by almost every one,' including other Black females," wrote nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page.

"The study of the hip-hop generation fails to pin down the big question: Does rap music and other traits of the hip-hop culture influence teens or merely mirror the culture that teens have created? The answer is probably both," Page noted.

After more than two decades of hip-hop's growth, an emerging cohort of young scholars may very well provide clear answers to questions of hip-hop's influence. "At one level, we need to document the genre. On a more sophisticated level, we need to determine how African American and Latino students perceive their social identity with respect to hip-hop's content, expressions and context. It is also important that we examine the perspectives of both the producers and consumers of hip-hop," says Dr. Beatrice Bridglall, the assistant director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia University.

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Dr. S. Craig Watkins, a professor of sociology, African American studies, and radio, television, and film at the University of Texas-Austin, is among a group of social scientists who have taken up the charge to examine exactly what impact hip-hop is having on its young audiences. For the most part, Watkins says that hip-hop scholarship has focused on analyzing content and cultural interpretation. That trend will change as scholars examine the effect the music and media images from hip-hop culture are having on the social identity and values of young people.

Previously, scholars, wondering whether the music and the culture would last, tended not to focus on the impact it was having upon its audience, Watkins explains. He also contends that a number of scholars embraced hip-hop with an uncritical, celebratory slant in their scholarship. With the passage of time and hip-hop's unimpeachable commercial success, it's become critical to explore its cultural impact, he says. "For young Blacks, it's important as culture because they see it as something that represents them," Watkins notes. Since the 1990s, Watkins has examined questions such as "What accounts for the global popularity of hip-hop culture products such as rap?" and "What has the 'commodification of blackness' done to the Black community?" That has led him to closely study media representations of hip-hop culture as a way to "explore what's going on with young people--their values, attitudes and behaviors," he says.

Currently, Watkins is planning a survey project that will initially study the attitudes and beliefs of 100 to 200 Texas youth of different races and ethnicities to determine what kind of media culture en gages them. …