On a cool Monday evening, in a city known more for its Ivy League intellectualism than its hip-hop culture, a dozen 9- to 13-year-olds are popping and waving to a funky, bass-heavy beat. Their instructor, Kelly Peters, demonstrates the moves – hallmarks of this dance and music phenomenon. He teaches hip hop once a week to children and teens in Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard University and scores of writers and scholars. Peters is black, and most of his students here are white.
That, in itself, is testament to the power of the hip-hop movement, which has grown from its urban roots in the 1970s to become a mainstream, multi-billion-dollar industry that spans all races. But with this incredible growth have come some serious concerns, particularly for today’s parents.
Want to Know More?
What do Kids Say?
Read what kids have to say about why they like this music so much -- the give us your feedback or let your children share their views in our online forum.
At its best, hip hop is a culture of music, expression and dance that embraces human tolerance and peace, while decrying inner-city poverty and violence, and calling for social change. But at its worst, it’s rife with expletives, violence, misogyny and sexual themes.
Enthusiasts who’ve watched hip hop morph into its current “highly commercialized” form compare kids’ attraction to this music to the previous generation’s embracing of rock ’n’ roll. But they also insist that much of today’s hip hop is not what this art form is supposed to be about.
From Proud Roots …
Hip hop was born some 30 years ago on the streets of New York’s South Bronx. Teens and young adults living in impoverished neighborhoods poisoned by violence, drugs and despair, channeled their frustration into high-energy, acrobatic dance and rap songs with lyrics that described the harsh realities of inner-city life. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, blacks and Latinos were expressing their struggles in their own music and dance. Eventually, hip hop absorbed these varying styles.
Many of today’s parents can remember the 1979 release of “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, the first hip-hop single to make it as a Top 40 hit:
i said a hip hop the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie the beat
Hitting the charts was a triumph relished by the youths who created this musical street poetry. But songs like “Rapper’s Delight” were a lot tamer than much of today’s hip hop. Consider these lyrics from rap artist Ludacris’ recent hit “Get Back”:
pt">That’s why I pack a mac, that’ll crack ’em back
pt">Cause on my waist there’s more heat than the Shaq Attack
pt">But I ain’t speaking about ballin’, ballin’
pt">Just thinking about brawlin’ till y’all start bawlin’
pt">Or this from “3 Kings,” by rappers Slim Thug f/ T.I. & Bun B:
pt">She curvy like a J. LoDamn baby poke me off before I even said “hello”
Is it the car, is it the ice, is it the grill
Cause I’m a star that pay the price to keep it trill
pt">She at the bar, she lookin’ nice, she on da pill
pt">And she got two more wit her ready so tell me how you feel
pt">See pimpin’ ain’t made nigga’
pt">Pimpin’ ain’t raised nigga’
pt">Nigga’ pimpin’ is born
Rap songs about sex, violence and crime are just part of a hip-hop culture that has crossed over to the mainstream – indeed, middle-class white youths are among the biggest consumers of hip-hop music today. From Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to Houston, New York and Boston, urban and suburban kids groove to hip-hop dance, snap up the latest CDs, and spout words like “trill” (rough and streetwise) and “bling, bling” (describing gaudy jewelry). Boys as young as 9 wear their pants well below the waistline, sport graffiti-covered jerseys and have gold-chains dangling from their necks. They even walk with the “I’m-so-cool” gait of their favorite rappers.
Hip-hop lyrics and fashion often reflect an “in-your-face” toughness and defiance. And, as more suburban kids adopt this “commercialized” culture as their own, more parents are disapproving and alarmed. Their concerns aren’t exactly assuaged when they hear news reports linking some popular hip-hop artists to gang violence, illegal drugs and other criminal activity.
“I think the music is appalling,” says Bob Weiss, a father of two children, ages 13 and 10. “My kids love it. I hate it,” he says. “The language is hostile, especially toward women.”
Madeleine Berenson, a stepmother to 12- and 14-year-old boys, isn’t bothered by the music itself. “The simple beat and lack of musicality don’t bother me, and I like the dancing. It’s athletic and beautiful and dynamic,” she says. “It’s the message that the genre has seemed to adopt: the glorification of excessive wealth, hate, particularly misogyny, and violence. A close second would be the offensive, rough language.”
Yet, one of hip hop’s main themes is unity and the sharing of cultures to help eradicate separation through race, religion or economic means, says Charlie Ahearn, director of 1982’s Wild Style: The Classic Hip-Hop Movie and co-editor of Yes, Yes, Y’all – The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. Hip-hop graffiti, for instance, was originally a response to inner-city violence. The music and dance emerged from the streets as a response to the expensive discos that dominated city life, and break-dancing competitions (called “battles) provided an alternative to gang violence, Ahearn notes.
“From a sociological perspective,” writes historian, deejay and community activist Davey D., “hip hop has been one of the main contributing factors that helped curtail gang violence due to the fact that many adults found it preferable to channel their anger and aggressions into these art forms.”
It’s the media, purists insist, that has commercialized and exploited hip hop into what it is today.
Still, it’s difficult for parents to look beyond the materialism, violence and misogyny of commercial hip hop.
“The music is trying to mimic a culture – gangsta’ stuff,” says Weiss, who remembers “Rappers Delight” as less sexual and more fun than the music his kids listen to today.
“My stepsons love rap because they see big buff gangsters,” adds Berenson, “mostly African-Americans who are exotic and who represent a culture they know very little about, bad boys covered in bling who positively seethe defiance and power, and sing it.”
Ahearn believes that hip hop scares middle-class parents because of its roots in the underclass, much of which is black in America. “They don’t want to be there. They don’t want their children to go there, as that future is seen as bleak,” he says. “The irony is that hip hop is one of the major elements that has saved many kids from becoming hoodlums.”
Bakari Kitwana, former executive editor of the leading hip-hop magazine The Source and author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, is more blunt: “The subtle message white conservatives make about hip-hop culture is that they don’t want their kids acting like black kids.” Black parents obviously don’t have those same concerns, Kitwana says, but “they, too, don’t want their children listening to material deemed ‘too adult.’”
Even younger parents, who grew up with hip hop, recognize that post-1980s hip hop has become more commercialized and sensational, and that the line between hip hop, glitz and even prison cultures has become blurred, he says.
Deidra Jones, also known as DJ Spinderella and a former member of the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group Salt ’N’ Pepa, hosts a syndicated hip-hop radio show, “The Spin Cycle.” She is also the single mother of a 12-year-old girl. “As a mom, of course, some of the music out there I don’t agree with and I don’t let her listen to,” she says of her daughter. “I talk to her about what I feel she’s ready to listen to at her age, because there are definitely some songs out there that are not appropriate for her.”
Part of the problem, Kitwana says, is that many adults haven’t educated themselves about what the hip-hop generation is truly fighting for. Parents who grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s can look to the rock and folk music protesting the Vietnam War to better understand the roots of hip hop, whose original artists used their music to describe what it’s like to live surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, violence and racial inequity.
Yet, today, while some praise white rapper Eminem for his slice-of-life lyrics about low-income, inner-city living, he has also offended many with his profane and violent themes, including a song about killing his wife.
Separating the Good and Bad
Because the media promotes this more negative form of hip hop so heavily, proponents say it’s very difficult for the public to divorce media images from authentic hip hop. It takes a discerning listener to separate the authentic from the commercial, says Chris Farley, a senior editor at Time magazine who has written extensively about hip hop. “You know it when you see it – when it’s from the heart,” he says. “A bad hip-hop music experience is like a bad summer blockbuster. It’s flashy and big.”
One of the hallmarks of true hip hop, Farley says, is to keep it real and honest, to not put on airs and to let people know that street life has value.
Critics of today’s commercialized hip hop claim that record companies have created the fast-lifestyle images of popular “gangsta’ rappers.” These are not necessarily accurate representations of the artists as people, they say. Even the violence that has been linked to some artists is sometimes staged for publicity purposes, alleges Peters.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of contemporary hip-hop artists who are politically, religiously or socially conscious – Talib Kweli, Teedra Moses and Kanye West, for instance.
Consider this from “Jesus Walks,” a track on West’s critically acclaimed 2004 album College Dropout.
Hey say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played, Huh?
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I’m dreaming about
Next time I’m in the club everybody screaming out
God show me the way because the devil trying to break me down
West, Billboard magazine’s Male New Artist of the Year for 2004, garnered 10 Grammy Award nominations this year, including one for Album of the Year for College Dropout. Critics laud West for steering clear of typical commercialized hip-hop themes, using his lyrics instead to urge kids to stay in school and to believe in themselves.
Parenting in a Hip-Hop Culture
Juggling the pure versus the commercialized versions of hip hop might seem a tall order for parents who aren’t well versed in the art form and are horrified by some of the lyrics.
“You’re not alone,” says Farley. Parents are justified in feeling uncomfortable about hip-hop lyrics in many cases, he says. Many hip-hop experts – and even performers – acknowledge that they wouldn’t want their children listening to all the music out there.
“Parents have to listen to the music,” says Kitwana. “They can’t just buy it for their kids. Parents have to police it.” If you don’t have the knowledge about hip hop, you can’t talk intelligently with your kids about it, he says.
Jones (DJ Spinderella) acknowledges that today’s hip hop is more sexual and commercialized, but emphasizes the rights of an artist.
“Nowadays, we as artists sometimes really want to be creative, and at the same time we don’t want to be responsible for other people’s kids,” she says. “But being a mother is first for me. My daughter is No. 1 in my life, and what she hears, what influences her is very important.”
Her advice to parents is this: Don’t let the music raise your kids. Know what your children are listening to. Let them know what you listened to growing up and what it meant to you. Then try to understand together the lyrics and culture of music today.
Her comments are echoed by Ice Cube, an artist many parents remember as a member of one of the more notorious rap groups in hip-hop history, NWA – well known for its profane, police-hating and misogynistic lyrics. When Ice Cube broke away from the group, his solo lyrics about how often blacks are persecuted garnered both criticism and acclaim.
Now the married father of four kids, ages 4 to 17, Ice Cube describes rap as all about “braggin’, boastin’ and inflating a rapper’s ego,” primarily for entertainment purposes. He lets his children listen to music they want to hear. But, he says, he also listens with them to explain the lyrics and to “decipher it from real life.”
He advocates trying to understand what your kids are into, and not always just saying, “No, you can’t listen to this CD or do that.”
“By being open with your kids,” he says, “you leave room for communication without cutting them off and making them feel like you’re unapproachable.”
When Madeleine Berenson hears a song she doesn’t like while in the car with her stepsons, she tells them the song makes her feel bad and turns it off. Rarely does she get an argument from the boys, she says.
Patty Cloughen, whose daughter started taking hip-hop dance lessons about six years ago, says, “The lyrics to the music can be provocative or suggestive, but we don’t live by those words.”
While talking with your kids about the lyrics is vital, hip-hop experts also suggest seeking out artists who strive to remain true to hip-hop’s roots.
“You don’t have to come from a horrible background to have hip hop be a positive experience,” says Ahearn.
“There’s good hip-hop music out there,” adds Jones. “You just have to find it and share it with your kids. You can find artists out there now who do make positive music and talk about important issues.”
The Source: The Magazine of Hip-Hop Music, Culture & Politics – www.thesource.com – Considered by many to be the nation’s definitive “source” of hip-hop news, both musically and culturally.
Yes, Yes, Y’all – The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip Hop’s First Decade, edited by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Da Capo Press, 2002. A critically acclaimed account of hip-hop’s birth, told in the words of its founders and stars.
The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, by Bakari Kitwana, Basic Civitas Books, 2003. Examines post-Civil Rights black America and the crises of homicide, suicide, imprisonment, single-parent homes, police brutality and unemployment.
Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, by Bakari Kitwana, Basic Civitas Books, due out in 2005. Argues that hip hop has broken down more racial barriers than any other social development of the past three decades.
On the Web
Davey D’s Hip-Hop Corner – This site offers a comprehensive history of hip hop, Davey’s top 30 songs, articles, reviews, interviews, political discussion and daily news.
Hip-Hop Summit Action Network –Works to use hip-hop culture and values to help change society’s ills. Discusses the social and political ramifications of hip hop and how individuals can get involved.
LISTEN Inc. – Strives to develop leadership and strengthen the social capital of urban youth for civic engagement and community problem solving
Want to Learn More? Just follow these links:
Morgan Baker is a freelance writer and the mother of two hip hop-loving daughters. Deirdre Wilson is a senior editor with United Parenting Publications (UPP). Angela Scott, a special sections editor with UPP, also contributed to this piece.