The bad rap for rap

Research shows how rap and hip-hop music are more positive than their stereotype suggests

Travis Dixon, professor of communication, worked with hip-hop musician King avriel on a study of the contrast between rap music and how it is portrayed.
Travis Dixon, professor of communication, worked with hip-hop musician King avriel on a study of the contrast between rap music and how it is portrayed.

Rap music has often been associated with a variety of unsavory habits, such as substance abuse, misogyny, and violence. However, a study co-authored by a communication professor at LAS suggests that this stereotype is largely the result of how major record labels market the music genre, and that companies have not yet realized the full cultural and financial potential of hip-hop and rap. 

What’s more, the study suggests that fans of rap and hip-hop more often appreciate and share music that conveys a far more pleasant and positive tone than music that fits the harsher stereotype.

Travis Dixon, professor of communication at Illinois, said that the stigma around the music genre is a product of the big name music industry labels and is not an accurate representation of the music as a whole.

“When people think about hip hop or think about music, they tend to think of the main industry troupes when it comes to the music,” Dixon said. “And it’s easy to fall into that; a lot of scholars fall into that. Scholars have spent a lot of time writing about how hip-hop is full of stereotypes and misogyny and all of that.”

Dixon wrote the study with Avriel Epps, a former student from when he was teaching at UCLA (Dixon came to Illinois from UCLA in 2014). Epps, also known as the R&B and hip-hop musician King avriel, worked with Dixon on a study of hundreds of hip hop songs, their lyrics, morals, and the mediums with which they were shared.

They examined rap and hip-hop lyrics that some 600 self-professed lovers of the music were sharing on Facebook. These songs were then compared with music of the same genre on Billboard “Top 100” lists—music that is generally promoted heavily by big-name record companies.

According to a release from UCLA, the study “found that songs shared on Facebook contained more ‘pro-social’ lyrics that more frequently espoused positive themes such as gratitude, expressions of faith and spirituality, messages of community building, the power of education and support for political engagement.”

The researchers examined lyrics from some 213 songs popular on the Billboard charts and shared on Facebook. In the Billboard songs, antisocial themes appeared 47 percent more frequently than in the songs popular on Facebook. On songs more popular on Facebook, pro-social themes appeared 16.5 percent more frequently than in songs popular on Billboard, according to the UCLA release.

Dixon said that the individual choices that people make are now heightened in the current media and social environment, and that the music being shared by actual consumers is a better representation of the genre that people want to hear.

“In the last 15-20 years, all of the various internet communication vehicles that we have from YouTube to Spotify have let artists directly market their music,” Dixon said. “So there are two things that come of this. One, I can now ‘direct market’ all kinds of things and I don’t have to buy any of it, which is really causing the ‘industry’ part of the music industry to suffer right now. Two, as a consumer, I can decide what I really want to listen to. I can tailor-make my playlists, and it may be that what the industry people think is important right now may not be what I’m going to have on my playlist or share on my Facebook wall.”

The ‘pro-social’ artists who have received considerable support though social media and other modern mediums include musicians such as Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. They are seeing rises in popularity.  

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Logan Weeter