Rap Music Remains Uniquely Threatening

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Listeners are more likely to assume violent lyrics are autobiographical if they’re identified with the genre.

By Tom Jacobs

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Nas performs on stage as a video pays tribute to Tupac Shakur at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors on October 3, 2004, in New York City. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Take a quick read of these song lyrics:

Well, early one evening I was rollin’ around
I was feelin’ kind of mean. I shot a deputy down.
Strollin’ on home, and I went to bed.
Well, I laid my pistol up under my head.

Did you find them objectionable? Threatening? Worthy of a “parental guidance” label?

New research reports more people answer yes to all of those questions if they believed the verses were from a rap song, as opposed to a country ballad.

In fact, they’re from a folk number recorded in the 1960s by the Kingston Trio. In that context, the lyrics presumably came across as slightly transgressive, but hardly harmful. But take away the melody and put a strong beat behind them, and very different emotional buttons get pushed.

Rap retains a strong stigma — one that, interestingly enough, transcends race.

That’s the conclusion of three researchers at the University of California–Irvine: Adam Dunbar, Charis Kubrin, and Nicholas Scurich. In the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, they provide evidence that rap retains a strong stigma — one that, interestingly enough, transcends race.

The researchers describe three studies, the first of which is a direct replication of an experiment conducted in 1999. As they note, that was a period of “heightened scrutiny of rap.” The music has become more mainstream in the years since, leading them to wonder whether people’s reaction to it has been tempered.

To find out, they recruited 126 United States residents online and had them read a longer version of the aforementioned lyrics. Half were told they were from a rap song, while the others were told they were from a country song.

Participants then responded to 14 statements, expressing their agreement (or lack thereof) on a scale of one to nine. They included “I find the lyrics offensive,” “I object to the lyrics,” “Regulations should be placed on this type of song,” and “The lyrics are based on the songwriter’s real life experience.”

“Those who were told the lyrics were from a rap song perceived them to be more negative overall,” the researchers report. They were also more likely to favor regulation of the lyrics, and more likely to believe they were literally true.

A follow-up study featuring 235 people was identically structured, except this time the violent lyrics were from a Johnny Cash song. The results were the same. A third study found the rap stigma remained present if the songwriter was labeled as black or white.

These findings don’t simply provide evidence of the associations we have with rap; they also have implications for the judicial system. The researchers note that rap lyrics are increasingly “being introduced by prosecutors to establish guilt.”

“The lyrics are treated like autobiographical confessions rather than art or entertainment,” they add. The study suggests juries may be more likely to read them in that way than would be the case if the defendant wrote songs in a different genre.

Judges, they conclude, need to take this bias into account while weighing whether to allow such lyrics into evidence. Doing so cavalierly may send innocent men to jail. And, in the words of Tupac Shakur, “Too many brothers daily heading for tha big penn.”

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