Identifying ‘the Other’ Within Hip Hop Culture
In order to understand the concept of ‘Othering’, it is important to first consider identity. In some ways it can be argued that identity and ‘Othering’ are two separate ends of the spectrum. This is because our identities are what we believe to be visible and controllable. The ‘Other’ is identity’s opposite, but ironically, also one of the main catalysts to influence particular behavior, belief and self-presentation. ‘The Other’ is the unspoken negative space. It is one person’s opinions, beliefs and behavior against another.
Identity is formed through an on-going list of aspects. These include self-presentation, how a person speaks, where they are from, who they surround themselves with, their influences, their interests, upbringing, genetics, fears, sense of humor, skills and abilities – social skills and appropriateness, religion and belief, gender stereotypes and language functions and sexuality. These are just a few examples of the broad spectrum, which determine identity. Each individual is unique. People tend to develop an understanding of themselves over a long period of time, through a range of new experiences, surroundings and, most importantly, other people.
The sociological approach to defining ‘othering’ is to study different groups within society. As opposed to focusing on an individual, sociological analysis tries to decipher the cause and effect of different groups within society. In this process, ‘othering’ is still important. It can be suggested that each group forms in response to ‘the other’. A group or unit of people choose to present themselves in a particular manner, either to gain a response from others around them, or to feel united with like-minded others. It could then be argued that people may feel pressured to ‘fit in’ or conform to behavior or habits they may not feel confident about otherwise. Influence of ‘the Other’ works in subtle, and not always conscious ways but it can have a huge impact.
One example of a core influence amongst many young people today is hip hop culture. Although thirty years ago the term ‘hip hop’ did not even exist, it has become one of the most talked about, respected, admired but also challenged cultures since the late 1900’s. The first ever rap hit was performed by Sugarhill Gang. After their release 'Rapper's Delight', the group's fame soon escalated. It was this hit which entered hip hop into the mainstream, introducing the masses to rap.
Professor S. Craig Watkins researches interactions between youth, race, media and pop culture. He states: “Hip hop has become the most visible voice for black culture, and it’s definitely changing the broader social culture.” Through its bold language, style and attitude, hip hop has formed a new wave of identity since its birth in the South Bronx and throughout the northeast during the early and mid-1970s. The identity of hip hop culture is one which has become one of the most influential amongst youths in modern-day society. It is arguable that the strong sense of unity provides comfort, strength and belonging amongst young people. That sense of 'belonging' ties into theories of 'othering' because hip hop fans are belonging in one social circle, making them feel stronger than those who 'belong' elsewhere. Identity works hand-in-hand with the idea of belonging. In order to belong, a person must act a particular way, dress with a certain style, speak with a specific tone and only behave in ways which are deemed acceptable within their social group. Once a person feels accepted, they start to feel like they belong, whether it be hip hop culture, or say, joining a new school. The desire of multiple individual seeking the same sense of belonging begins to form a unit; A group of people sharing the same understanding.
“…Hip hop has encompassed not just a musical genre, but also a style of dress, dialect and sensibilities, way of looking at the world, and an aesthetic that reflects the sensibilities of a large population of youth born between 1965 and 1984.” (Aldridge and Stewart). As described by Aldridge and Stewart, hip hop is not just about the music. It also encompasses a strong visual, spoken and behavioral 'aesthetic'. The music is built up from all of these elements; the image of hip hop changes just as frequently as the current affairs addressed in hip hop lyrics. The dialect of hip hop takes a wide range of on-going and ever-changing language features. It can be argued that the language of hip hop is unclassifiable. The broad influence of hip hop generates a need for adaption and development, just like any other musical genre. It can not be denied that visual identity, spoken identity and written identity (the lyrics themselves) each play a role in forming what is known as hip hop culture. The sense of 'othering' fuels the excitement and competitive nature of hip hop. Each lyric is to be more powerful, creative, imaginative, inspiring than the opposing rappers.
Like hip hop, every musical genre is marked with its own label and stereotypes. Pop music, for example, is often repetitive. It focuses on a memorable melody or riff to get into the audiences head. It tends to focus more on relationships, break-ups and love. Similar to some rap music, the songs generally consist of a series of verses, broken up with a repeated chorus. Pop music is commonly in the charts and the lyrics are often made suitable for a younger audience (particularly on radio play). It can be argued that pop music is less controversial lyrically. Whereas pop music focuses on a strong visual identity through medias such as eccentric music videos or daring fashion trends, hip hop's core strength and focus goes into its controversial lyrics and attitude.
The man who bridged the gap between all extremes of rap audience was Kris Parker, better known as KRS-One. KRS-One effectively outlines the abstract nature of hip hop's existence through a list of examples of what hip hop is not. This is interesting as by doing this, his explanation incorporates 'othering'. He explains: "Hip Hop is not a person, a place or a physical thing; it is an awareness. You cannot actually go to Hip Hop, or wear Hip Hop, or eat Hip Hop. Hip Hop exists as a shared idea; it never enters physical reality, it is a way to be. You cannot drink a can of Hip Hop and suddenly know how to rap. You cannot put Hip Hop on as clothing, or read a book in order to understand Hip Hop. Hip Hop begins as an awareness; as an alternative behavior that causes one to rap, or break (dance), or write graffiti, or deejay. Hip Hop in its true essence, is a shared urban idea - a unified feel…" In summary to KRS-One's statement, hip hop is an art, just like any other form of music. It is not a physical means which people acquire, it is, as he describes, 'a way to live'.
Watkins summarises the identity and fashions of hip hop as he perceives it. “It’s the fashions worn by free-thinking young black males in downtown Houston, L.A. or Indianapolis. It’s the music of 50 Cent and the pioneering sounds of the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. It’s Afrika Bambaataa and the legacy of street-surviving kids in the Bronx in the early 1970s, before the hype. It’s spoken word and New York City subway graffiti and films like Menace II Society and Boyz N’ the Hood that shine an unsparing light on the collision of urban ghetto life and black youth. It’s African American activists, artists and business moguls like Russell Simmons who want to mobilize the hip hop generation into a political force to be reckoned with. It’s a walk and attitude and youthful, often rebellious, voice that resonates with high school students in Kansas as well as club-goers in Tokyo.” (Watkins, 2008). Not only does Watkins’ definition cover the general identity generation and roots of hip hop, he also adds a sentimental element of the impact it has had on him. From this brief explanation, it is evident that Watkins has been moved by hip hop. His analysis is detailed, passionate and admiring. Although hip hop has been challenged numerous times due to its bold and sometimes controversial habits, it is arguable that it is respected and admired by many people too.
There is an on-going debate in current media as to whether hip hop is to be celebrated or diminished. Tricia Rose explains the conflicting views of hip hop. "On the one hand, music and cultural critics praise rap's role as an educational tool, point out that black women rappers are rare examples of aggressive pro-women lyricists in popular music, and defend rap's ghetto stories as real-life reflections that should draw attention to the burning problems of racism and economic oppression, rather than to questions of obscenity." (Rose, 1994). This suggests that hip hop is something positive, strong and admirable. The purpose of hip hop in this view is that it is something to appreciate and give credit to. It can be suggested that this opinion could possibly be one from a youth or hip hop artist themselves.
Understanding an art for what it is intended to be can largely determine the views and opinions formed around it. Rose continues, "On the other hand, news media attention on rap music seems fixated on instances of violence at rap concerts, rap producers' illegal use of musical samples, gangsta raps' lurid fantasies of cop killing and female dismemberment, and black nationalist rappers' suggestions that white people are the devil's decibels." This supports the opposing view, that hip hop is not to be encouraged as it focuses on violent and sexist themes. The inclusion of a reference to white people are suggested to be the ‘devil’s decibels’. This also generates debate about elements of racism within hip hop culture and rap lyrics.
A key debate surrounding the topic of hip hop culture is gender roles. The representation of Men and Women in rap is one that has been challenged continuously in the media. It can be argued that some (not all) rap is bias towards men. Throughout the history of hip hop, there have been implications of disrespect towards women. Women have been referred to as 'bitch', 'hoe' and 'slut' just to name a few. For example, Eazy-E's lyric from N.W.A - Boys-N-The Hood reads:
"Went to her house to get her out of the pad
Dumb hoe says something stupid that made me mad
She said somethin that I couldn't believe
So I grabbed the stupid bitch by her nappy ass weave
She started talkin shit, wouldn't you know?
Reached back like a pimp and slapped the hoe
Her father jumped out and he started to shout
So I threw a right-cross cold knocked him out"
This example shows an aggressive nature towards his partner. The tone of this verse starts relatively easy-going, but escalates quickly into an aggressive, impatient and violent nature. By referring to her 'talkin shit, wouldn't you know?' he implies that this is no surprise to him. He then refers to himself as a 'Pimp' for slapping his partner. This sets an example for his fans that slapping women is acceptable, and even something to take pride in. Next he describes how he then knocks out the girls father due to being confronted for a second time. This supposedly adds an emphasis to his power and strength at this point in the verse. He represents himself as unstoppable. It is lyrics like these, which would arguably have had a strong impact on young males who admired rap groups like N.W.A. If somebody's idol is behaving in a certain way, it is likely that people may try to follow their example.
Adams and Fuller, in their analysis on misogynistic lyrics in rap, state: "Misogyny in gansta rap is the promotion, glamorization, support, humorization, justification,or normalisation of oppressive ideas about women. In this genre of rap music (specifically African American women) are reduced to mere objects - objects that are only good for sex and abuse and are ultimately a burden to men." (Adams and Fuller, 2006) They define rap music as “the poetry of the youth who are often disregarded as a result of their race and class status… Hope, love fear, anger, frustration, pride, violence, and misogyny have all been expressed through the medium of rap."
Tricia Rose addresses the nature of female rap and its differences to male rap. She states; "…black women rapper's central contestation is in the arena of sexual politics...Clearly, female rappers are at least indirectly responding to male rappers' sexist constructions of black women." This suggests that black female identity within rap music is partially formulated by a conflict against men. The behavior of men and women in relation to one-another, relates back to othering. Each sex, in this case, has their individual beliefs and opinion of what is right and wrong in terms of gender roles.
In hip hop, males often set examples of masculinity through belittling women and their roles in society. Black women rappers' response to this is to prove to themselves and these black male rappers, that they are independent and strong. They challenge the views set by the opposing males. Rose explains this further by stating: "This opposition between male and female rappers serves to produce imaginary clarity in the realm of raps sexual politics, rather than confront its contradictory nature." The 'imaginary clarity', which Rose refers to is the bridge between male and female values against one another. Rose suggests that instead of resolving the sexual politics present in black male and female rap, each gender insists on defending their own corner. Sociological theories of othering then become present again. As two separate units, male and female rappers sway their attitudes to challenge the other (in many cases such as these; the opposite gender). Male rappers continue to follow egotistical values of the power of men over women, while female rappers do their best to defend themselves and prove these standards wrong.
A good example which supports Rose's analysis on the opposition of male and female rap is the song 'Can't Hold Us Down' by Christina Aguilera and Lil' Kim – two female artists who have become popular recently within young teenage groups. This song is about women fighting back for gender equality. In one verse, Christina Aguilera sings 'If you look back in history, it's a common double standard of society. The guy gets all the glory, the more he can score, while the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore.' Although this is a large generalisation, she supports the research carried out by both Adams and Fuller and Rose. The issues of misogynistic values set by males, is being addressed in this verse. Lil' Kim then continues:
'So what am I not supposed to have an opinion
Should I be quiet just because I'm a woman
Call me a bitch cos I speak what's on my mind
Guess it's easier for you to swallow if I sat and smiled'
Although this song was released in July 2003, it is relatable to N.W.A's Boys-N-The Hood lyrics from 1989. Where Eazy-E raps 'Dumb hoe says something stupid that made me mad. She said somethin' that I couldn't believe.' He insinuates that his partner is a 'dumb hoe' because; in his opinion she 'says something stupid'. Lil' Kim's verse indirectly challenges this by stating women will be called a 'bitch' because they speak what's on their mind. Their is an evident contrast of opinion here. The situation is turned upside down in Lil' Kim's argument, implying that a man is only happy when things are going his way. As soon as he appears to be challenged, he behaves irrationally and unacceptably – which in Eazy-E's case is to refer to his partner as a 'dumb hoe' and a 'bitch'.
Henri Tajfel's Social-identity theory proposes that we define ourselves in terms of the group that we think we belong to and we seek approval and status in relation to others. For example people often define themselves in terms of nationality (e.g., American, British, French). Just like each country wants to be perceived as better than the others, different hip hop groups or gangs seek to be above the rest.
According to social-identity theory, people can boost their self-esteem by discriminating against outgroups. And, research generally confirms that threats to self-esteem increase prejudice, which in turn enhances self-esteem. This is broken down into four main stages: Firstly, the need for self-esteem. The reaction is then determined through either their personal identity, or social identity. This is then further broken down into an individual’s personal achievements, favouritism towards their social group and derogation of other groups outside their own. All of these elements come together in order to gain self-esteem. This process often works in a cycle.
In conclusion, it can be argued that hip hop covers an extremely broad spectrum in terms of visual, spoken and written identity. Hip hop's identity is defined through its historical roots and also the development in society. The on-going debates about sexist and racist themes within rap lyrics are yet to be resolved. There is no denying that hip hop has heavily inspired many people to fight for what they believe in. Whether the influence of hip hop culture is perceived as good or bad, it is evident through research and analysis of people such as Watkins, Aldridge and Stewart, Rose, Adams and Fuller and Tajfel that hip hop has grabbed a huge amount of attention since its birth in the early 1900s. Hip hop culture and identity is not just about the music, it is about a whole historical and sociological movement. In the words of KRS-one; 'Hip Hop is something you live' and life is never black and white.
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