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The Power of Hip Hop Culture

    As a Hip Hop purist, I’ve always hated the fact that most commercial rap music promotes negative images and messages. Having used Hip Hop culture as a medium to empower youth for the last 15 years, I’ve seen first hand how mainstream rap impacts young impressionable minds. It is disturbing. Having also worked with incarcerated youth, I’ve seen how rap that glorifies irresponsible and criminal behavior has become the soundtrack to their daily lives.

    The music industry’s role in promoting negative music has been a hot topic for many years. I’ve personally written about it extensively. What is too often under reported is how young people, including incarcerated youth, are directly impacted by the music. Although the overall effect is easy to imagine, specific details are extremely revealing. Here are some of my personal observations gathered from years of work with teens in traditional schools and juvenile detention centers.

    • When asked to explain what Hip Hop consists of, the majority of kids list violence and gangs as being elements of Hip Hop.
    • When asked to list what their favorite artists rap about, the overwhelming majority list guns, sex, violence, cars, thugs, jewelry, and money as popular topics.
    • When asked to name rappers with positive lyrics, most kids name Drake, Tupac, and Kendrick Lamar (within the last year) but seem unaware of any others.
    • When asked to name female rappers, the overwhelming majority can only think of Nicki Minaj.
    • When asked if rap music influences them, the majority say yes.
    • When asked if they know anyone who tries to emulate what rappers do, 99% say they know one or more people who do.
    • The majority of girls say that most boys seem to learn how to treat girls from their favorite rappers.
    • The majority of boys say that rap music has taught them that girls cannot be trusted.
    • Over half of kids use slang they picked up from the newest songs in their everyday conversations.
    • 99% of kids get all of their music for free. Most have never even owned a CD.
    • The majority of kids only know commercial rappers and aren’t very familiar with the underground scene.
    • Most kids don’t realize that they can use the internet to discover new artists and end up only acknowledging rappers who top the charts.
    • Half of all youth state that they’ve never heard rappers use big words.
    • The overwhelming majority of incarcerated youth say they listen to “gangsta shit” to pump them up to get high or commit a crime.
    • Over half of incarcerated youth refer to rappers who glorify negativity (ex: Chief Keef, Gucci Mane, Lil’ Boosie, 2 Chainz, etc) as “real shit” while rappers whose content is more progressive are labeled “weak” or “corny”.
    • Over half of incarcerated youth dream of becoming rap stars when they get out of jail.
    • During rap writing sessions, most kids write about the same topics commercial artists rap about. 99% of incarcerated youth have an extremely difficult time writing about anything else besides the streets.
    • Half of incarcerated youth say that slow and bass heavy instrumentals (trap music) inspire them to do negative things. They say “something” in the beat has an effect on them.

    The previous data is usually gathered within the first few days of working with youth. After I’ve had enough time to teach kids about Hip Hop culture, the music industry, and the “Commercial Rap to Prison Pipeline”, I expose them to pioneers and iconic Hip Hop artists as well as new underground and independent rappers, of whom most of them have never heard before. Some of these artists include:

    Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Dead Prez, Pharoahe Monch, Homeboy Sandman, Sa-Roc, Supastition (AKA Kam Moye), Jay Electronica, and Ill Camille.

    After having spent a few sessions with me:

    • The overwhelming majority of kids say that the artists I’ve introduced them to sound better than commercial rappers.
    • Most kids wonder why radio doesn’t play these artists in heavy rotation.
    • Most say that they didn’t know rappers could speak intelligently and still sound good.
    • About half of the kids state that mainstream rappers sound stupid in comparison to these newly discovered artists.
    • Many of the kids who are aspiring rappers ask me what they can do to become better lyricist.
    • The majority of them are mad at the mainstream music industry once they’re exposed to alternatives and conclude that the industry is intentionally promoting music to “brainwash” them.

    These findings are both disturbing and hopeful. As I’ve stated in previous articles, mainstream rap music can’t be blamed for all of today’s social ills as unemployment, poverty, gangs, drugs, failing school system, and institutionalized racism are the real culprits. However, mainstream rap’s impact on youth cannot be ignored and has undoubtedly contributed to an already troubled society. Still, when seeking solutions and innovative ways to effectively reach our youth, it’s good to know that Hip Hop culture, in the right hands, can have the kind of impact on young people that may help to save their lives.


    Sebastien Elkouby is a Hip Hop Culture historian, freelance writer, consultant, and award-winning educator. Check out his educational program,Global Awareness Through Hip Hop Culture and his blog, For more info about his services, contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @SebIsHipHop (Although he rarely uses it!)