• Hip Hop's Influence on New York's Youth

Killing the Message?

Hip-hop music has a powerful effect on New York's youth--and an almost entirely negative one, say three young writers, who think that impact could, and should, change.

In a new song called "I Got Swag,” 50 Cent says: "Gettin paper's my objective. Yup, now your chain gone. One false move and CLAP, now your brain's gone . You like me, you aight with me; me? I'm into me. I destroy my enemies, even if they're kin to me. Do 'em like the Kennedy's. Ching-ching, that's mo' bread. Say somethin slick out yo' mouth, I'll come for yo' head."

The descent of hip-hop into its current abysmal state is ruining its potential to have a positive impact on youth. Music is a big part of young peoples' lives. We listen to it when we feel down and when we feel good. We are constantly listening to music, with these messages pouring into our heads and taking root. Hip-hop has the potential to spur political thinking and edge people to take action, but only if its culture changes.

Sistas and Brothas United is a youth-led organization that builds the next generation of community youth leaders in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. Many of SBU’s leaders have grown up in hip-hop culture, but as developing community leaders, we want to change this culture. The youth at SBU want hip-hop’s message to go back to the way it was when it first started, when it inspired young people and the community to think about facing our problems head-on. Mainstream hip-hop's abandonment of that consciousness is something for which both the artists and the industry are to blame.

The message that’s being portrayed in a lot of mainstream hip-hop music is one that gives young people the idea that destructive and exploitative behavior is not only acceptable, but expected, even attractive. A strong example of that is how women are depicted—and how men are depicted treating women. In one verse of his song "Bedrock," Lil Wayne says: “Look it, how she walk. She know she bad. Do your thing baby. I ain't even mad. And I ain't even fast. I'm-a stay awhile. Hold yo head Chris, I'm a take her down.” The last bit, an apparent reference to Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna, suggests that even beating women is something of which some mainstream artists approve.

Some of the young men we’ve grown up with use oppressive language from music to degrade women in their own lives. This misogyny is often paired with a glorification of violence and money, as "I Got Swag" illustrates.

People who listen to these messages are mostly young people who are just shaping their identities and have little or no understanding of their culture. In many cases, these youth buy hip-hop music and study it at a greater rate than they study their school work. The industry controls and manages hip-hop music so only the negative hip-hop artists get the support they need to produce music--which, of course, the industry believes is more marketable.

Artists like 50 Cent who glamorize violence often don’t seem to think about the impact their words have on young people. Young people look up to people like 50 Cent. They begin to think that they need to be a gangster, to get money, girls and guns in order to fulfill their self-worth.

Things were different in hip-hop’s earlier days. In the eighties or nineties everyone was listening to Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and many other artists who were both popular and positive; so if it was possible to promote positive hip-hop then, it’s possible now.

Hip-hop used to address the issues of poverty, unemployment, and violence that we constantly face within our communities and compel listeners to step up and do something to make a difference. Public Enemy once said in the song “ Fight the Power”: “Now that you've realized the prides arrived, we got to pump the stuff to make us tough from the heart. It's a start, a work of art. To revolutionize, make a change--nothin's strange.”

Like inner-city youth themselves, hip-hop has unlimited potential that has not been tapped. If and only if the music changes to focus on issues like poverty, racism and economic dislocation, it would have enormous power to inspire youth to create change in their lives.

Youth are brain-washed into believing that it's OK to use the many derogatory terms we hear in hip-hop today. Hip-hop artists project wealth and power that young listeners want to appropriate. But when so many young people call their peers bitches or n----rs, a generation is devaluing—is disempowering--itself. This adoption of negative culture must be changed before it’s too late. We can’t wait for the day when hip-hop artists use music to build our community instead of perpetuating its destruction.

Yashira Cividanes and Adolfo Abreu also contributed to this City Conversation piece

Andrew McFall

Andrew McFall


I long for the days when the pendullum of Hip Hop music swung in more than one direction. When NWA talked about living in Compton, Slick Rick narrated imaginative children's stories, while Public Enemy encouraged us to "Fight the Power" and warned against believing in the hype. Today we are constantly fed a diet of distilled Hip Hop music that is devoid of any cognitive, informative, or spirtual value. Hip Hop music is too phenomenal to be typecast as a monolithic artform of urban degradation and misgogyny. For me it used to be uplifting, inspiring, political, thought provoking, and at a minimum a consistent joy to listen to. A few years back, Nas claimed that "Hip Hop is dead." Well I would contend that it may not have flat lined, but it's in desparate need of life support. So what's the solution? I would argue that more dialogue like this is needed to hold the artist, record companies, and radio broadcasters accountable. The challenge needs to erupt within the hip hop community and then galvanized in the larger community. Organizations, schools, colleges and universities need to embrace Hip Hop music in their workshops, lesson plans, classrooms, and course work. These efforts will help to guide young people in determining what's great and what's garbage. Hip Hop music continues to be the pulse of the urban experience. It's influential, innovative, and monumental. So like many of my you I would be willing to support fresh strategies that breathe new life into the artform.

Michael Partis

Michael Partis

Co-Director, Bronx Brotherhood Project

Hip Hop music and Hip Hop culture has not only penetrated the daily workings of the global world, but has also profoundly impacted the public’s understandings of poverty, artistic expression, and the worldview of Black and Brown youth across the globe. The questions we face looking forward, is how can young people channel the culture’s transformative power; and how do progressive activists & community organizers address the negative aspects of the music—plainly, how can this complicated social phenomenon effect positive political change?

You all talk exclusively about Hip-Hop music—specifically mainstream Hip-Hop music. I want to expand the conversation to also consider Hip-Hop culture, and for us to seriously meditate on where Hip-Hop music comes from. What are its origins?

Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overly interested in “consciousness.” Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overwhelmingly interested in political issues. It is important that we are clear about the history of Hip-Hop music, and not romanticize it. A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and De La Soul were not a part of mainstream Hip-Hop; they did not sell as many records or were not as commercially successful as 50 Cent, Ja Rule, DMX or the other rappers who were incredibly popular to the general music consumer, broke records for album sales, and brought Hip-Hop music to Top 40 radio. “In the Club,” “Holla, Holla,” and “Where My Dogs At” is mainstream Hip-Hop. Not “Bonita Applebum,” “Fight the Power,” or “Me, Myself, and I.”

The most commercially successful and profitable Hip-Hop artists were not firebrands for activism and political action. Mainstream Hip-Hop is Run DMC; LL Cool J; Beastie Boys; Tupac; Biggie; Eminem; P Diddy; Jay-Z; Kanye West—artists and groups never associated with being political organizers, and who’s music and lives are deeply complicated and nuanced. Rather, they are artists and groups that have always been associated with: sex, drugs, and money; having fun, partying, and enjoying the best that life has to offer; rising from humble beginnings to enjoying luxurious and lavish lifestyles; and exhibiting a gangster bravado and social-defiance that often feeds our interest/obsession with “the bad guy.”

We may want mainstream hip-hop to be Dead Prez, Talib and Mos, Immortal Technique, and Common…but, it isn’t. Mainstream Hip-Hop music is commercially successful, profitability, and marketable—not revolutionary or political in the way we often think.

Gina Ortiz

Gina Ortiz

Student, John Jay College

In a society where entertainment serves as a primary guardian, it is impossible to deny the significant amount of influence it has on not only children but grown folks as well. Unfortunately, there are numerous "grown folks" that have yet to mature and develop morals that will enforce proactive and overall civil behavior. It is forces such as the supposed "adult" population and booming music industry that condone superficial and violent attitudes transforming the focus of youth culture from constructive to detrimental.

Many sources claim Hip Hop is not what it used to be. Once upon a time, Hip Hop was the remedy to lost hope in one's future due to social and economical oppression. The political potential was there because it empowered youth to do what they needed to do and reassured them that they were not alone. However, current-day Hip Hop artists and disciples have diminished their political potential via consistent sexual exploitation, condoning violence as a solution to conflict and method for attaining status.

When the youth are able to connect with artists via common backgrounds or shared experiences, the influence becomes a lot greater, and with that supremacy comes power. I think a lot of these Hip Hop Artists are so busy testing our constitutional right to freedom of speech that they neglect to implement the essential power of fame in a productive manner. So at one point in time, the political potential was most definitely there in the culture of Hip Hop, however current artists have demolished that light on various levels.

I don't mean to discredit any morally valuable artists or well-established youth out there, but it is the lack of moral consciousness in many so called "role models" like 50 Cent, LiL Wayne—and even parents--that perpetuate a missing link between today's youth and the concept of respect for themselves, women, and society as a whole.

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