It was with a growing sense of unease that I followed How Hip Hop Changed the World on Channel 4, a programme broadcast over the summer which charted – in a somewhat disorderly and arbitrary fashion – the ‘top fifty ways’ in which hip hop culture has become an entrenched presence in societies across the globe over the past couple of decades. In the aftermath of the violent chaos that hit UK cities in August, one felt almost guilty watching rap videos that glorified gang violence, especially those that placed so much emphasis on the flaunting of wealth and material possessions.

Most of us are aware that rap music, and the hip hopculture behind it, emerged as a vehicle of protest for America’s troubled youth back in the 1970s. Even those who are not so aware can find in the urgent, gabbled, verbal torrent of, say, ‘Ready to Die‘ by Notorious B.I.G., an anger and frustration that can, by implication, be associated with deprivation and a lack of direction. Today, it appears that the rap music of ‘gangsta’ culture has seduced some of the young in our cities, who have adopted it as a symbolic gesture of rebellion against the more ‘privileged’ circles of society, from which they feel detached and excluded. 

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The appeal of rap music, as opposed to sung music, can be explained by several factors: not only is the spoken word (especially when projected aggressively over a driving beat), far more effective in conveying a direct – although often oversimplified – message to the musically untrained, it is also an idiom available to everyone. In another of Channel 4’s recent explorations of this theme, Life of Rhyme, the veteran MC Akala praises the art of rapping as a form of poetry, which can both unite and educate.

It may be that hip hop can have a positive effect on deprived communities, promoting a sense of community identity, and providing an outlet for the ‘off-loading’ of difficult feelings. But it may also be the case that many of today’s youth are simply drawn by the shallow allure of unearned self-importance and power that this ‘poetry’ promotes. Rapping can become a game of respect, and often celebrates intimidation, swaggering self-confidence, and ‘being the best’. In How Hip Hop Changed the World, Dappy from N-Dubz reveals his first reaction on hearing a song by 30-strong hip hop posse So Solid Crew: ‘When that came out … I wanted to be an MC. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to have girls, and people screaming my lyrics’. Of course, many of us naively yearn for fame when we are young, but it is another matter for young people to be duped by the glamour of unearned fame – or notoriety – into following the example of those dandified thugs who have fulfilled their own desire to ‘get noticed’.

Here we return to the dominant ‘message’ of much hip hop: what lies at the heart of the genre, beneath its images of street warfare and boasts about wealth and drug-taking, is self-aggrandizement. Children, materially or culturally impoverished, and habituated to this raw, aggressive music, may read in it the answer to a successful life: a code of moral inversion embedded in the hip hop lyric implies that ‘status’, being the ultimate aspiration, can be acquired only through material wealth.

These kids are all too aware of their misfortune and impoverishment, but they might take comfort from wallowing in the sound-world of similarly disengaged youth, who provide encouragement to scorn authority, and take what they want – or are brainwashed into wanting. David Starkey’s condemnation of UK ‘gangsta’ culture on Newsnight provoked outrage and widespread accusations of racism, but – even if his views were expressed tactlessly – he was above all addressing a more general condition of cultural ill-health in today’s society, not singling out or stigmatising any particular ethnic group.

Too many of these ‘gangsta’ songs obsess about the miseries and inequity within society; some of our inner-city youths, identifying with the sentiments in these songs, may feel justified in lashing out against those who have more than they do. One of the tragedies of the August riots was that, in some cases, the victims of violence and arson had no more, often less, materially, than the attackers themselves.  

Poverty became an excuse for the young looters: complaints about deprivation fell – or should have fallen – on deaf ears, as rioters bagged iPhones, designer t-shirts, trainers and jeans, and flat-screen televisions. These young adults were starving – not for food, but for status symbols and luxury goods. The proceedings became a race for respect – a form of respect engendered by their immersion in a culture that brags about money, and endorses the assumption that having what you think you want is the answer to both happiness and success. The lyrics of 50 Cent’s ‘I Get Money‘ ring true: ‘I was young, I couldn’t do good, Now I can’t do bad; I ride, wreck the new Jag, I just buy the new Jag. Now nigga why you mad? Oh, you can’t do that.’

Can we wonder that our inner-city youth, brought up with few aspirations, negligible education, and little prospect of employment, fantasize about a ‘happier’ life where success consists of little more than having the ‘right’ things, and proving oneself to be better than one’s neighbour through intimidation and braggadocio? And when our culture as a whole supports and promotes such deluded beliefs, condoning and encouraging youth’s untrammelled right to self-expression and ‘independence’, what can be done?

According to Idris Elba, the presenter of How Hip Hop Changed the World, the summit of hip hop’s rise to power was Obama’s announcement to America of his love for Jay-Z’s music. This was surely not just a gesture of racial solidarity, but also an expression of the governing class’s desperate desire to get ‘down with’ the youth and to earn their respect. We see something similar in Britain today: Cameron may have lamely condemned excessive radio coverage of violent rap music, but it is clear that many years of official non-judgementalism in social policy and education has allowed a culture of crude materialism to dominate certain sectors of society. Moreover, in view of the seemingly continuous decay of morality not only within establishment circles (exemplified by, for example, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009), but also among the more privileged in society – including university students – where would these underprivileged young people find moral guidance, were they disposed to seek it?