Media mislabel rap: "Music is seen as the cause of violence"

Foto van Jeroen van den Broek

In February, rapper Bigidagoe was shot dead in Amsterdam. The media quickly linked the rapper's death to his music. Jeroen van den Broek, criminologist at Erasmus School of Law, is conducting PhD research about the street world and rap music. He was featured in De Volkskrant and on EenVandaag on this topic. In this article, he talks more about the quick, careless conclusions that are sometimes drawn about the music genre: "It is a well-known reflex: rap is seen as the cause of violence."  

What is the link between rap music and violence? 

According to Van den Broek, there is indeed a link between rap and violence. "This is because both are exponents of the same underlying cultural context, 'the street'. Rap music stems from this context and could be described as 'the soundtrack of street life'. With one exception, all the street-oriented young people I conduct PhD research on produce rap music to a greater or lesser extent. At the same time, exhibiting a certain readiness and willingness to commit violence within their street world (in the absence of other forms of authority) has a clear function. It is considered an important means of fighting - sometimes literally - status positions." According to the criminologist, street-oriented young people are thus those who make rap music as well as those who, within that street world, both as perpetrator and victim, face violence on an above-average basis. Therefore, it makes sense that (the communication of) violence is part of rap music. "However, what is incorrect - and that is where the problem lies - is that the music also leads to violence. There is a correlation, a connection, but not so much causality."  

Where do the misconceptions in public discourse come from?  

According to Van den Broek, many people are insufficiently 'street culture-sensitive'. They do not really understand the street world and the dynamics at play there. He argues that this leads to two main misconceptions. "First, people do not sufficiently understand that the (often generic) communication of violence within that street world represents an important function and is the order of the day. For people socialised within a context where violence is much less prominent, aggressive video clips and ditto lyrics will logically be interpreted in a very different way. They will take violence much more seriously than its communication might warrant." Moreover, people who have much distance from that street world seem to see rap music, not least because they never (or will never) listen to it themselves, much less as an art form than, say, books, films, series or other genres of music. "Violence in a rap song is interpreted very differently from an aggressive rock lyric or a violent Hollywood film." According to Van den Broek, the latter is also partly due to the nature of the genre itself. According to Van den Broek, the latter is also partly due to the nature of the genre itself. "Because rap can largely be described as identity art, where the artist's credibility prevails over his artistic output, rappers are keen to argue that what they rap is real. Herein lies an important difference between actors and writers, for instance, who very clearly play a role or create a character and are open about it. Whereas these artists (can) step out of their roles outside art, rappers will always (have to) maintain that they are living the life they are rapping about." According to the criminologist, fact and fiction intermingle more in rap music than other art forms. "And especially for people unfamiliar with the broader context of the street culture, it is difficult to make this distinction." 

The selectivity of media coverage also seems to play a role in how the general public views rap music (and rappers). "There are countless examples of rappers winning awards and breaking records, supporting charities, helping each other's careers, being kind to their fans, writing positive lyrics and being good role models for young people." Moreover, based on ongoing research by Robbert Goverts at the Erasmus University, rap music also appears to have important positive effects on young people. For instance, it gives young people feelings of recognition, positive energy and self-confidence. Van den Broek argues that although rap has passed rock as the most popular music genre since 2018, media coverage of these positive aspects of rap often fails to materialise. "To the media, rappers seem interesting mainly when they do something that fits the stereotypical image of rap music."  

Specifically, what could be done differently?  

Journalists and policymakers could, according to Van den Broek, use two important principles to deal with the relationship between rap and violence in a more nuanced way. First, he argues that the fact that someone has recorded a rap song at some point this does not immediately make them a 'rapper'. "As I stated earlier, almost every young person I speak to as part of my PhD research makes rap music. Rap is connected to street culture. If someone is actually known as a rapper - as in the case of Bigidagoe - it is legitimate to label them as such. However, after the shooting of Peter R. de Vries, the suspect was also initially portrayed as a 'rapper' by NOS, even though the young man had seven monthly listeners on Spotify. One can wonder whether the label 'rapper' is justified in such a case." Secondly, according to Van den Broek, the media could adopt the premise that the fact that a rapper is involved in a violent incident does not mean that the cause of the incident also lies in the music. In fact, in almost all cases, the street scene in which these young people are embedded is a much more important predictor of their involvement in violence. "Until more is clear about the possible role of music, there is really no reason to believe that it was the trigger for the violence. The involvement of a rapper does not yet say anything about the involvement of rap." 

Why is it important to look at rap differently? 

Van den Broek argues that the, at times, unsociable and uncomfortable themes raised in rap music stem largely from the fact that not everyone in our society grows up under the same circumstances. "For example, the marginalised young people I'm researching face considerably more violence in their daily lives than I do." In his view, the fuss about rap stems partly from the fact that this music genre exposes a (violent) street world that many people are unfamiliar with but is not new. "My fellow researchers and I have been portraying this reality for much longer, and thus are less shocked by the things that are now finding their way to the general public via rap music." According to Van den Broek, pointing to rap music as a cause of violence not only shows a lack of street culture sensitivity but also tends to be an attempt to deflect responsibility for the conditions mentioned above. "By pointing to rap music as a scapegoat, we do not need to talk about the underlying societal problems that lead young people to speak out about these issues in music." 

More information

Read the article in the Volkskrant here (in Dutch). 
Watch the excerpt from EenVandaag here (in Dutch). 

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