Sunday, 21 August 2011

What does it mean to say rap music causes riots?

It's been a busy couple of months and I have plenty of thoughts on experimental electronic music stocked up waiting to be written out, but I couldn't resist looking briefly at how music has been brought into analysis (such as it is) of the riots in London & elsewhere. (I'll begin though, with a disclaimer: I am no expert on the music that's been discussed. Neither, though, are most of the people who've been talking about this, so I think I'm at least one-up on them with my honesty.)

The historian David Starkey is now the most infamous of those who've brought music into the discussion, due to his analysis of the influence of 'black culture' upon rioters & looters. About five minutes in to the Newsnight segment where Starkey claimed the white working-class had adopted aspects of Jamaican-influenced gangster culture (and no, I won't refer to it as 'gangsta' culture as others have, as if doing so demonstrates you are 'down with the kids' and actually have any particular insight into it), rap rears its all-too-familiar head. It does so, significantly, with Starkey's claim that what's needed at this time is “plain speaking” – by which he presumably means populist common sense of the kind that doesn't require empirical evidence. And with that, Starkey was able to claim that rap music “glorifies” violence in such a way that it fosters a culture where violence is permissible.

Those who defended Starkey in the press picked up on this idea of 'plain speaking' over rap music. “What motivated the troublemakers”, says Tony Sewell in the Daily Mail, “was not genuine poverty but rather a raw acquisitiveness that is fuelled by so much in this black-led youth culture, from the imagery in rap videos to the lyrics of hip-hop music”. This is a world dominated, Sewell says, by sex and materialism, that “glories in... macho dominance and easy wealth” and ignores “restraint, hard work and personal responsibility”. Sewell notes the woman threatened with eviction from her council house after her son was arrested for looting; that boy, of Spanish parentage no less, “was photographed in an oversized rapper-style cap and T-shirt with a skull motif”.

This speaks to one of the main reasons why hip-hop and rap are easy targets for those wanting to explain (away) the recent riots: these styles of music and the culture associated with them are very public and thus ripe for outsider consumption. All you need to do is point to a piece of clothing or a music video and you have empirical evidence of causation.

Only you don't really. What you have is anecdotal evidence for a particular sub-culture among a certain sector of society. You don't have evidence that rap music creates conditions for rioting. I was curious to see what research had been done into the effects of rap music on listener behaviour, so I searched around and found this literature review from last year on the effects of rap music on behaviour related to violence and misogyny. The review by Charis Kubrin & Ronald Weitzer looks at popular and scholarly writing on rap music's behavioural effects. Its conclusion? Very few writings that claim particular behavioural effects result from rap music are based on empirical evidence. “In the literature, it is not difficult to find claims or assumptions regarding rap's effects, most of which are never empirically examined or tested using data of any kind”; noting several claims made in writings on rap music, the authors note that “[n]one of these writings is empirical; yet all, at some point in their discussions, make claims regarding what rap does to and for its listeners” (p. 124).

Those studies that do claim to rely on evidence mostly evade discussion of methods, instead relying on small sample sizes or “the selective use of example (eg. rap lyrics, video segments, or writings) to “prove” a point” (p. 126). This is the preferred method of those now arguing rap encourages rioting. Tony Sewell argues the culture now adopted by white working-class youths has “an utter disregard for the police and the rule of law”, arguing: “You only have to consider that one of the most controversial rap songs of the past two decades was called Cop Killer to understand the danger posed by these influences”. Kubrin & Weitzer's point is precisely that this is not enough to understand such a danger. What's needed is proper theorising over how music would influence behaviour, as well as empirical evidence of this effect in action. What ethnographic or experimental studies that do exist suggest, according to Kubrin & Weitzer, is that different listeners will interpret & internalise meaning from rap songs in different ways depending on their demographic characteristics & lived experience. It's often forgotten by those making claims about rap's negative effects that “listeners can reject lyrics, resulting in disaffiliation, ambivalence, and disengagement with (rap) music” (p. 132). Any possible negative behaviour effects of rap music most likely depends upon listeners being “socially predisposed to act, or “primed,” in a certain way – pre-existing views reinforced by, or resonating with, new stimuli” (p. 135).

As is so often relevant to sociological claims made by casual observers, correlation is not causation. Rap music may reinforce pre-existing world views, but “this does not mean that rap music causes predatory attitudes or violent behaviour” among those who listen; rather, it “suggest[s] that there may be reciprocal effects between the music and a particular neighbourhood culture” (p. 138). The fact is, there simply isn't enough evidence-based research yet to support firm conclusions over the behavioural effects of rap.

Apart from these significant methodological weaknesses in arguments around rap and hip-hop's influence on rioters, there's a discursive point to be made about recent commentary. Starkey talked about a “violent”, “nihilistic” culture spread through “Jamaican patois” that had “been intruding in England” to the extent that “so many have this sense of literally a foreign country”. Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror blames “the pernicious culture of hatred among rap music” for rioting, and calls for the banning of “the broadcasting of poisonous rap”. Sewell points to “the rise of the television music channel MTV” and “[t]he arrival of the internet” as taking advantage of “the continuing collapse of the traditional family” to provide young blacks (and now whites, presumably) with a new peer support structure. What these commentaries paint for us is an image of an external (musical) culture having infiltrated sections of our society. It's this discursive logic that leads to the argument that Britain needs outside help to deal with this culture: as the Associated Press notes, “analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today's British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo”.

When white people seem to 'ape' a form of black culture that we deem to have a negative effect, the black culture has 'intruded' on us from some foreign place. When, however, the form of black culture benefits white people, the latter have 'adopted' it. The latter scenario is an example of 'white hipness' most recently discussed by Robin James at the University of North Carolina. In a recent article James talks about the societal consequence of this image of whites trying to be 'hip', that is, through “the performance of stereotypical black male embodiment”. James draws on Richard Dyer's analysis of whiteness as “maintain[ing] its privileged (ie. normative) position via its “invisibility,” which is in turn achieved... because of its omnipresence: the invisibility of whiteness as a racial position”. 'White' is taken as the norm, and is consequently “unmarked, unspecific, universal” rather than a racial position with its own subjectivities & particularities. White “marks white people as unmarked” by not being 'of' their corporeality; there is no essence of whiteness in white bodies. Thus when certain white people, say, poor & working-class whites, are more strongly associated with their body & with physical labour, they can be dismissed as 'less white'. They have lost their whiteness. Hence Starkey's claim that “the whites [but only a particular section of them] have become black”. What this collectively does it obscure 'whiteness' as a particular privileged social category.

James argues that the idea of 'taste', like whiteness, is a subjective universal, a particular understanding of what constitutes 'good art' that obscures its particularity through its claim to universality. Whiteness and taste reinforce each other through paradox: whiteness lies within the body but does not originate there (since that would betray its particularity), while taste claims to derive from bodily sensation but is not restricted to it (ie. it becomes something 'intellectual' and universal).

Hipness is very different from taste, but both work to maintain white privilege. “While taste arose as part of the consolidation of the white European bourgeois patriarchy, hipness emerged as a means for a certain elite portion of the white bourgeois patriarchy to affirm its privilege by rejecting what become, by the twentieth century, feminized mainstream white bourgeois culture”. Hipness – the “all-too-knowing, rebellious, and avant-garde rejection of bourgeois values” – is the act of whites 'dipping their toes' into black culture in order to further demonstrate their superiority through their whiteness: “the hip individual's engagement with “outsider” culture is always undertaken for the purpose of demonstrating one's ability to conquer or domesticate what would otherwise threaten or void one's privilege”. The hipster 'performs' an adoption of particular stereotypes about black style to get one-up on her fellow members of the privileged white strata by showing that she adopt black culture without losing herself to that culture's physicality (which would erode claims to superior taste).

Those members of the white working-class who took part in rioting & looting are perceived as having 'lost themselves' to black culture; by contrast, middle-class whites who listen to jazz or blues and perform hipness cement their white privilege by showing they haven't lost themselves – they perform a rebellious marginality perceived as being 'of' black bodies without them losing their whiteness as a frame of reference for that performance's value.

With the rioters, black culture is perceived as having won & taken over white bodies; that's what so irks Starkey et al. White people are supposed to adopt stereotypes of black cultural traits in order to demonstrate the virility of their whiteness to other white people. In response to the 'failure' of these white working-class rioters & looters, commentators have restricted the perceived negative aspects of these members of society to the black culture they've adopted. So, materialism becomes a problem for black hip-hop music, rather than a reflection of white-dominated capitalist patriarchy. Rap music, Routledge says, “exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs”. God forbid should any other style of music – rock, say, or Euro-trance – promote such evils; if they did, of course, they definitely wouldn't influence people's behaviour in the way rap music supposedly does. Materialism, like the black culture these commentators are criticising, becomes an individual character trait, an infection into white bodies, rather than a structural phenomenon.

Anyway, I promise to return to writing about obscure experimental ambient-drone-glitch-techno in future posts. I think there are a lot of more musicological issues here that deserve some attention. Rather than a single-minded focus on lyrics, for instance, how much does the actual musical structure of hip-hop, and 'gangsta rap' in particular – with its repetition, cut-up sampling and perceived personification of aggression – influence outside observers' views of its “pernicious” influence? But I'll have to leave such a question to people who actually know something about contemporary hip-hop. Though I will end by pointing you to a recent single from Dels featuring Roots Manuva that – shock horror – talks about disenfranchised youth in Cameron's Britain and the structural causes of gun crime. Starkey would be foaming at the mouth.

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