Media Frames and Hip Hop Culture
The media has an increasing presence in all of our lives, and there has been a lot of research conducted on the various ways that it affects the very ideas that pop into our heads, the impressions we formulate of other cultures and musical genres, on foreign policy and the things that we buy. It’s obvious that the media is playing a role in our daily lives, but to what extent is it affecting the way hip hop music and the culture itself are understood by the average citizen, specifically children?
Via the radio, the newspapers, magazines and most commonly, the television and internet, is it possible to see just how these easily available media are influencing younger people and those of an older age bracket and notice what kinds of frames the media are using with regards to hip hop? This paper will take a look at the available literature sources on the subject of media messaging and hip hop culture and review the established theories, as well as use household surveys to examine just how much exposure children in America actually have to mass media.
Media framing is the process by which the media chooses its context for a news story and portrays it with a certain slant – common framing is done with a conservative viewpoint or a liberal one, and often as pertains to the hip hop culture the frame is that of a violent, consumerist culture (Robinson 20).
Media framing is a technique by which journalists and reporters give basic context to their stories, and framing can tend to promote a particular political or social agenda or because of a fundamental lack of knowledge on the subject. Ramsey (pp 22-40) thinks that it is a case of the latter, since researchers and sociologists tend to regard hip hop cultures in American as being quite separate from the rest of the population to begin with.
This isolation, to whatever degree it is actually apparent in these subcultures, is portrayed by the media and therefore understood by all viewers and listeners as the truth. Americans who are not a part of the hip hop culture are easily made to notice themes in hip hop music that relate to violent gang mentality and blatant consumerism that sees younger black people showing off expensive clothes, jewelry and cars. Mukherjee calls this media frame the “ghetto fabulous” and explains how what was originally an isolated feature of the hip hop culture has become widespread due to media attentions. This primary isolation is one of the major frames used by the media to portray a specific picture of hip hop culture, and these depictions are undoubtedly helping to shape the hip hop scene in the mind of the average television viewer and magazine reader.
Saunders describes the generalized version of hip hop culture as a group of thieves, graffiti artists, vandals, drugdealers, sex-obsessed men, objectified women and joyriders (37-134), and unfortunately although this is a part of the underground culture of both the hip hop artist and the people listening to the music, the author accepts that there is more to it than this perception. Although it has been correctly noted that these themes are recurrent in rap music, an individual listener could easily fail to notice these same themes – or any other recurrent themes, for that matter – inherent in other types of music or even literature and film.
The media has honed in on the negative themes in rap and hip hop music, however, and uses such sensationalist aspects of the culture and music to deliver a message of negativity, and create fear. The attentions unrelated groups of people have tried to intervene and have such songs and music videos censored. This has not generally had a positive effect on hip hop lyrics, and in fact has actually helped to raise the popularity of such music and the culture surrounding it (Davidson 74).
Where once hip hop was purely restricted to the groups of black Americans forming their own subculture, now media attentions (both positive and negative) have brought hip hop and rap music to larger numbers of people who wouldn’t have originally had access to it. With the widespread hip hop scene, people of other ethnic origins and social situations are discovering the music and starting to participate in the culture, and this can be attributed in a large part to the success of the Motown Corporation (Neal).
Some of the aspects featured in hip hop music, like graffiti, can be looked at as holding a specific role within the culture itself. Graffiti, for example, can be viewed as a “microcosm of how people communicate, participate, and learn within a community” (Rahn 137), specifically within the hip hop communities of urban America. Although it seems unlikely that media bodies realize exactly what they are portraying to viewers and readers of popular magazines, stories about graffiti artists involved in the hip hop lifestyle are being framed in such a light as to highlight the rebellious qualities of the subculture.
Graffiti is portrayed in a conflicting way; negative in that it defaces public and private property and can be used to mark gang territory, but also mildly positive in that it is obviously an artistic outlet. The artistic aspect has a negative side as well, however, since the media can only seem to look at graffiti art in a good way if it is an expressive emotional outpouring from an impoverished neighborhood (Rahn).
Basically, hip hop artists are only getting attention from the media for negative qualities in their music and lifestyles, at least as perceived by the media itself and the majority of average citizens watching the news and reading the magazines and newspapers. People see rappers on TV when they are involved in gang related crimes and gun violence, or when their lyrics have come under scrutiny for what is deemed unsuitable content. Although every genre of music has questionable lyrics, hip hop artists are the primary suspects when it comes to bringing out the censors.
The media frames hip hop and rap artists in an unfavorable light the vast majority of the time, citing them in one all encompassing category that is violent, untrustworthy and obsessed with material possessions. Unless a person is directly involved in the hip hop scene, they are very unlikely to hear about positive things going on within the culture. The media on the whole simply reports on negativity within the hip hop world, something that many artists are understandably frustrated with.
What this media framing is proving to the hip hop culture is merely an ignorance on behalf of media and the general viewing audience towards black American society. With very few years – relatively speaking – of freedom and equality between black people as a minority group in America and the majority whites, black Americans have found themselves grouped together in poor areas still facing huge difficulties in achieving better standards of living. These societal factors have had a huge impact on the subculture of blacks themselves, resulting in part in hip hop music as both a rebellious act and a validation of black survival in an often hostile larger environment.
Mollyanne Brodie used her book Kids and Media in America: Patterns of Use at the Millenium to discover just how much of an impact media images such as these portrayals of hip hop culture are affecting young children throughout the country. The results of these surveys are instrumental in understanding the role of media framing in American children with regards to hip hop music and culture. She noted that although there are ways of discerning how long a television set is on during the day in the average household, there is no real way of knowing which programs or advertisements are seen by which members of the family.
With specialized surveys distributed to households in the United States, Brodie collected answers from members of different families to work out just how much time children were spending watching which kinds of shows on the TV during the day. “The ‘in-home’ sample consist[ed] of 1,090 young children, ages 2 through 7 years, and relie[d] on parent responses to questionnaires” (Brodie 18). Keeping in mind that children can lack vital information about the programs they are watching and other related questions, it was up to parents to share the viewing habits of their children and this data was collected to get a firm, solid look at the American child and media influences.
The conclusions were that today’s young person in the United States spends more time with media sources than any other preceding generation, and that this is likely to increase in the near future. With the television, computers, the internet and advanced mobile technologies, kids have access to more information than ever before and the media therefore has access to the kids as well. For this reason, the media has taken on a more powerful role than ever before in human history.
The findings of these surveys were conclusive in revealing the simple fact that kids can go about their daily lives without fully realizing how they are being affected by the barrage of media images, and when it comes to the hip hop culture this is no different. Negative comments, news stories and lyrical debates are at the forefront of a young person’s mind, since survey statistics have proven that music is the most important aspect of a child’s life, especially in the teenage years. Hip hop has infiltrated the routine of the average youth due to censorship issues, gang reports and all kinds of negative imaging, however it is with this younger generation that the truth behind the hip hop culture is beginning to be truly appreciated.
The average youth experiences difficulties that are thematically similar to that of the oppressed and underprivileged black American who is a part of the hip hop culture, and kids are able to make this connection when they take a look at the music coming out of such groups. Rap and hip hop were born out of frustration and the need for freedom of expression, which is just what the average teenager is looking for as well. With this fundamental likeness, youths turn to hip hop music as a way to bond with each other and feel validated in their opinions and feelings of loneliness and desperation.
Lyrics about gang violence can represent the need to fit into a group, while songs featuring bling and ownership can represent the ultimate triumph over adversity. Kids can really relate to this kind of music despite media imagery that portrays it as negative, because they are used to having themselves portrayed in a negative way by their parents, schoolteachers and other authority figures.
Media framing of the hip hop culture might not be affecting the youth of America in a straightforward way, but it is affecting them nevertheless. The older generations are reacting in the expected manner, however, when they tend to latch onto the negative side of hip hop and work to eradicate it from the American music scene. Parents are becoming concerned about their children participating in what they consider a different culture of music and behavior, and the media is merely serving to continue this sort of thinking.
When people see rap music videos, they have years of pre-conceived notions in their minds, placed there by the media, and so it becomes very difficult to differentiate between real opinion and actual negativity. A person tends to consider issues such as this based on the information they already have, and then value that information on the source that it came from. If the source is trusted, a person will tend to follow that train of thought; if not, they might look further into the issue to find features of it they can relate to themselves.
It is this characteristic of each individual person that leads them to a certain degree of media influence. Where an adult who trusts major news sources and hears that rap music is synonymous with violence and crime might believe it with few questions, a teenager who has become wary of any older authority figure who hears the same thing will probably not accept this as the complete truth.
Brodie’s surveys helped to prove what most of us already thought to be true: the media is playing a huge role in our perception of the world, particularly with the younger generations. “A typical 11- to 14-year-old gives more than 6½ hours per day to media, and because he or she often uses several media simultaneously, encounters almost 8 hours per day of media content” (Brodie 190). These conclusions do go to support secondary sources like the essays The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture and Sold Out on Soul: The Corporate Annexation of Popular Black Music.
Both papers solidify the notion that the media has a great impact on hip hop portrayal throughout America in every aspect, particularly in music and consumerism. Researchers are in agreement with statistical evidence that proves children in America are incredibly susceptible to media influence, although it is clear that there are other factors that determine just how a young person will react to the same media frames in hip hop.
Brodie, Mollyanne, Ulla Foehr, Donald Roberts and Victoria Rideout. Kids and Media in America: Patterns of Use at the Millennium. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Davidson, Sandra. Bleep! Censoring Rock and Rap Music. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Rahn, Janice. Painting without Permission: Hip-Hop Graffiti Subculture. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002.
Mukherjee, Roojali. The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture.
Neil, Mark. Sold Out on Soul: The Corporate Annexation of Black Popular Music.
Ramsey, Guthrie. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
Robinson, Piers. The CNN Effect: The Myth of News, Foreign Policy, and Intervention. London: Routledge, 2002.
Sanders, Bill. Youth Crime and Youth Culture in the Inner City. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005.