Take the Rap

The increasing popularity of rap music among students creates a dilemma for teachers and parents alike.

There is a phenomenon going around boys’ schools in South Africa at the moment. A rap battle with a difference. ‘War cry’ committees across the country are turning to rap music for inspiration to create new chants and war cries for their school. Performances are then filmed and posted on-line and, if successful, are shared enough times to be noticed and re-posted by the original rapper themselves. The winner? The school with the video posted by the biggest artist.

As far as I can tell the leader board looks something like this (artists followers in brackets):

  1. St Stithians Boys’ College who were chanting Chris Brown’s (53.9 million) single, Sensei.
  2. Hilton College version of Ali Bomaye posted by The Game (10.7 million).
  3. St David’s Marist Inanda went viral after the students were seen rocking to Fat Joe’s (2.5 million) smash hit – All The Way Up.
  4. Michaelhouse for their version of Live by Sheck Wes (801,000).

My personal favourite is the St David’s post. Have a look here and check out their war cry leader. His performance and energy is phenomenal.

Teenage boys love rap music. ‘It’s ‘gang lit’ as one said, ‘the base just goes in’. In the last five to ten years, rap which was always popular, seems to have exploded as the predominant musical and even cultural expression at school among boys from all walks of life. It’s not just boys. From what I can gather rap is also popular amongst the girls’ schools, although they might not be combining it with war cries. Rap’s school going fans cut across race and gender.

It’s great to celebrate the energy and creativity of youth in these videos. It’s important also to recognise this expression of their identity. However there is a more sinister side to this art form.  Last year at my school it appeared the most listened to songs were Sicko Mode by Travis Scott ( ft. Drake), along with Mo Bamba by Sheck Wes. Have a look at the lyrics to this last song on-line when you get the chance. The first verse goes, “Oh! F***! Sh**! Bi****! (Huh)!” I can’t type any more here or this post won’t show up in any safe searches.

Rap music is littered with such lyrics. A few years ago according to Billboard magazine, the University of Pittsburgh examined the 279 most popular songs. 9% of pop song lyrics mentioned alcohol and drugs, this went up to 14% for R&B and Hip Hop songs, 36% for Country and Western music and such references were contained in 77% of all rap songs. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in this genre there is frequent use of misogynistic language and references to violence and drug dealing are rife. Explicit sexual content is almost a given. This includes the artists in our billboard above.

Combine this with the fact that today, according to the New York Times, the average teenager listens to 2.5 hours of music a day. With streaming services via phones, and Beats by Dre or bluetooth ear plugs and speakers, it is far cheaper and easier to get your music and have it with you wherever you go. Be it on the side of the sports field, between classes and, quite possibly, in class.

person s gray hoodie
Photo by Sebastiaan Stam on Pexels.com

This incessant exposure is soaked up by sponge like brains. For adolescents this is particularly true. This ‘socially sensitive’ period means teens are especially receptive to other people and ideas. This is good and necessary on the one hand, but it also means our young people may struggle to filter out material that is harmful.

Bono said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” But the fact that music is so powerful can also make it dangerous.

Studies have shown that if teens do listen to a lot of rap they are more likely to behave in a hostile manner towards their peers, to treat women more aggressively and view aggressive behaviour more positively. Watching rap videos (14 hours a week) means a teenager is 3 times more likely to get into a fight with a teacher, 2.5 times more likely to find themselves under arrest and 1.5 times more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs and or contract a sexually transmitted infection.

We are not going to stop teenagers listening to rap music. I may not allow my son to pump out Drake’s latest drop in my own home, but when I’m not there, or he has his ear phones plugged in, I am powerless to prevent it. What we can do as adults though is act as that filter and ask the questions that perhaps teens can’t ask about this music.

Giving adolescents opportunity to pause and reflect is always a win. We don’t want our children to be uncritical when it comes to the music they listen to. Use the opportunity that rap music provides to have that talk and to remind them of your values. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. As Daniel Siegel said, “A good question sends us on a good quest”, and a well-timed conversation with your child may make all the difference.