Rap: An Integral Part of American Culture

When thinking of a topic for my final project, I wanted to study something that was a part of my life at Harvard and that connected race and technology in an interesting way. After talking about several potential topics with one of my roommates, I decided that I wanted to holistically study rap music. I think rap music is essential to the idea of black voices speaking about black experiences. While I know that this is a particularly broad topic, I hope to analyze rap and its role in American society in four specific ways: rap as a lifestyle, arbiter of gender roles, economic structure, and part of consumer culture.

First of all, I want to look at how rap functions as modern tales of upward mobility. By this I mean, I want to “code” the various ways rap is used to express the ascension of individuals. Take the follow chorus from Rich Gang’s song, “Lifestyle” for example:

“I’ve done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle. We came straight from the bottom to the top, my lifestyle. Nigga livin’ life like a beginner and this only the beginnin’. I’m on top of the mountain, puffin’ on clouds and niggas still beginnin’.

-Rich Gang “Lifestyle”

Rich Gang among other contemporary rappers use their lyrics as a way to share their stories of upward mobility in America. Their stories are in stark contrast to “traditional” stories of American upward mobility like Horatio Alger tales of the late 19th century. But does that make them less relevant to understanding conceptions of American success? Does rap fully explain the experiences of minority youth? Through my research, I want to explore what defines success according to rap, and what core values are central to the rap lifestyle.

Second, I want to analyze the role gender plays in modern rap music. Rap and hip-hop music are constantly blasted for being “sexist,” but what does that actually mean? The sexism occurs lyrically and visually. Not only are the lyrics demeaning and subvert women, but also rap music videos objectify women’s bodies and use only certain types of bodies. However with hip-hop and rap icons like Missy Elliot, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj, rap is being used as an agent for empowering female sexuality. I think a powerful example of female rappers “reclaiming” their sexuality is Minaj’s “Anaconda.” The reclamation is happening on two levels: 1) taking the hook of a male rapper’s song and transforming it into something new, and 2) Minaj uses her body as a way to dominate males.

Teen’s React to “Anaconda”

Third, I also want to look at the very production of rap. Rap is often cited as “thug music” that retells the stories and experiences of inner city youth, but is that actually reflective of the music industry? Who are the studio executives and who decides what acts get contracts? I like to think of rappers and the music industry executives in terms of the ubiquitous chicken and egg scenario. Are the rappers making certain types of music on their own accord or are the wishes of the CEOs forcing rappers to make “thug music.”

Finally, I want to analyze how rap is shared and discussed. At the end of the day, music is written and produced for an audience. However, who exactly composes the audience of rap music? As part of my research, I want to explore how different groups engage with rap music. I also want to look into the various types of media people use to discuss and share rap music including Twitter. There seems to always be a great deal of tension between white people appropriating rap music and rap culture and the actual lived experiences of African-Americans.

Another element of rap’s audience is the context in which it is heard. During my time at Harvard, I have been guilty of judging a party on how “fun” it is based on the type of music that is playing. If a party is playing more “ratchet” rap music, I assume that the party is going to be more fun. However, I find it troubling that I am not listening to the lyrics of these songs and how they may be continuing to perpetuate gender inequalities or promote violence.

Even though rap music has been and is continuing to be studied, I think that I can add more to the current discourse on rap music. In terms of conducting my research, the bulk of my methodology will be the content analysis of contemporary rap music lyrics and videos. I am very excited to utilize Harvard’s Hip Hop Archives as a major source for background research. In terms of gathering reactions to rap music, I will scour Twitter, Tumblr, and other blogs to find a variety of opinions. I also want to gather the voices of Harvard students, so I may conduct informal interviews with my peers.

I think what I am most looking forward to in this project is the intersectionality of rap. Not only how it is interpreted and used by various races, but also its economic implications. Rap music is a huge part of American culture and can provide insights into gender issues, structures of oppression, and how people are able to tell their stories.

Which Rapper Are You?!

Works Cited:

– “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang via YouTube

-“Hilarious Reactions to Rap Lyrics that Don’t Make Sense” by CollegeTimes Staff @ collegetimes.com

-The Top 10 Most Sexist Songs (That AREN’T Rap or Hip Hop) by Noor Al-Sibai via feminspire.com

-“Teens React to Anaconda” via YouTube

-“Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj

-“Nicki Minaj Just Wants to be a Rapper, and not a Female Rapper” by Eliza Thompson via cosmopolitan.com

-“Miley Cyrus Has Given Up On Twerking; She’s Columbused the Nae Nae” by Yesha Callahan via theroot.com

-“It’s About Time I Stopped Ignoring Sexist Rap Lyrics” by Christiana Mbakwe via xojane.com

-Which Rapper Are You via BuzzFeed

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