Hip-hop music has been controversial ever since its emergence into the cultural mainstream in the late 20th century. The explicit content of some hip-hop song lyrics, extolling violence and drug and alcohol use, and detailing sexual exploits and gang adventures, can be quite disturbing to parents of teen fans in particular. The content of popular music, including but not limited to hip-hop, may have a negative impact on kids' behavior according to certain studies. But hip-hop alone will not turn your child into a juvenile delinquent. In fact, hip-hop music may have some positive behavioral effects, too.
What is Hip-Hop?
If you speak to hip-hop aficionados, the term refers to more than just a musical genre -- it encompasses a whole culture, including dance forms, graffiti art and even fashion. Hip-hop music is characterized by a performer speaking rhythmically, or rapping, over a backing track that often but not always consists of loops or samples of other music woven together. Hip-hop debuted in the 1970s in the Bronx and gradually became the dominant popular music form by the 1990s, representing a multi-billion dollar industry today, according to Education.com.
It's Not All Hip-Hop
Hip-hop music isn't all expletive-laced narratives of thug life; that's a stereotype. As a musical genre -- in fact, as the dominant pop music genre of the last few decades and counting -- hip-hop encompasses a wide range of styles and philosophies. Some tell narratives of violent gang life, some sing the praises of partying at the club, and some extol more positive messages to youth about pride, love and life philosophy. There are even albums of hip-hop recorded exclusively for young children by artists such as the Dino 5, 23 Skidoo and Mista Cookie Jar -- not to mention a book, "Hip Hop Speaks to Children," edited by poet Nikki Giovanni.
It's Not Just Hip-Hop
There's nothing special about either the musical structure or the lyrical content of hip-hop that makes it especially dangerous or questionable for kids. Parents have been complaining about their children's taste in popular music since at least the 1920s and the debut of jazz. Heavy metal is full of violent imagery and misogynist sentiments -- and for a while it, too, was under the cultural microscope as a cause for angry young teenagers to act out or harm themselves.
Correlation Versus Causation
The principle that must be kept in mind whenever studies about popular music and children's behavior are discussed is the one known as "correlation does not equal causation." That is, just because you can demonstrate a statistical link between two things doesn't mean that one causes the other or vice versa. In other words, there may be a statistical link between, say, redheadedness and freckles, but being a redhead doesn't cause freckles to appear on your skin nor do freckles on your skin cause your hair to turn red. The correlation is significant, but in this case there turns out to be an underlying third cause in the form of certain genes in people's DNA. Consumption of violent media, then, has not been proven to cause kids to act violently. Sorry to say, things are more complicated than that.
All that said, various studies have shown a correlation between undesirable behaviors and lyrics describing or espousing violent, sexist or illegal activities. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites several studies as part of its 2009 "Impact of Music, Music Lyrics, and Music Videos on Children and Youth" report that show a connection between violent lyrical and visual content and aggression, sexual content and sexual activity, sexist content and sexist attitudes. Some studies also show an increase in risk-taking behavior and drug use associated with certain music. Note that many of these studies used music videos, not just audio tracks, in their studies, so it's unclear whether it's the imagery or the lyrical content that's correlated with these behaviors.
Hip-hop can also have some positive effects. Its verbal inventiveness can inspire listeners to play with language, learn techniques of metaphor and simile and appreciate rhythm and rhyme. It's no coincidence that hip-hop and poetry are often compared, for they use similar techniques. Hip-hop can also facilitate cross-cultural connections between young listeners and develop community and camaraderie among fans. Some hip-hop aficionados argue that the music can encourage critical thinking about societal issues. And many educators are now using hip-hop music in the classroom as an instructional tool, utilizing it to teach about everything from mathematics to grammar to the periodic table.