Increase your well-being by listening to Dutch hip-hop

Spark interview with Robbert Goverts
Jan van der Ploeg

How do listeners use Dutch hip-hop to influence their well-being? That is what Robbert Goverts, a sociologist and criminologist affiliated with Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, is researching for his PhD research. 'Hip-hop is the most popular music genre among young people. Although the genre has a negative image among the general public, hip-hop also has a vulnerable side. That is what we are looking at.'

'If you call, I'll be there | And when you call, I'm ready' (Lotgenoot, Winne).

Dutch hip-hop is the most famous music movement among young people. Rappers such as Fresku, Sticks, Hef, Lijpe and Kevin are at the top of the playlist that Robbert compiled with input from young people. The general public associates rap and hip hop with aggression and masculinity, but Robbert nuances that: 'Rap is part of street culture. There, you have to be tough. You must try hard to earn status, which can be taken away from you quickly. Listening to the lyrics also reveals a lot of vulnerability. 'Sometimes it sucks | Sometimes crying | Sometimes, sometimes I prefer not to go outside | Sometimes, sometimes afraid of later | Sometimes, sometimes I miss my father,' Sef raps, for example. I find that collision between hard and soft interesting.'

Regulate emotion

Robbert also finds it interesting to know how young people 'negotiate' these differences between rap and rap culture for themselves. 'What do you take seriously and what not?' Young people use music to regulate their emotions. They stream a loud song when angry or aggressive and a vulnerable song when they feel sad or down. 'Rappers rap self-confidence into you through your ears,' says one respondent. While it is common for people to use music to regulate their emotions, rap is more direct. Rappers share their raps with a broad audience in their language or slang. Listeners feel they are being addressed in their subculture.

Rappers give words to a situation. Their language is full of images, puns and punchlines, which listeners, in turn, use to interpret their own emotions. 'It wasn't until I heard this song that I understood how I felt,' says one respondent. 'And so, it's not bad if I don't know sometimes,' young people express the support they find in Fresku's song 'Twijfel', which means doubt in English. 

Key findings

Robbert has just completed the second part of his research. The scientific paper is still being worked on, but the first results are clear. To gather information, Robbert read, amongst others, about 90,000 reactions under YouTube videos. 'There, I paid particular attention to the well-being aspects to understand how personal well-being is used in Dutch rap and what that means for listeners.' People post very personal responses. Under a video of Willem, someone says they played his song on the way to a close friend's funeral because it evoked memories of a performance they had seen together at Lowlands two years earlier. 

Robbert saw something similar in the comments under a video of Feis, the rapper who was shot dead on New Year's Eve 2019 on the Nieuwe Binnenweg in Rotterdam. Under his song Superman, in which he raps: 'maybe tomorrow I will try to save the world again', people respond to both the message and the person: 'You have given an entire generation the realisation that we stand side by side as brothers. As long as I live, I will carry your message. United as one.' 'A double memory,' says Robbert.

He also discovered that listeners look for nostalgia in rap songs. Nostalgia is a way to increase your well-being. 'For example, someone listens to a song he first heard years ago on the little square behind the house where he smoked a joint with his friends. That feeling is deliberately sought out by streaming a particular song. 'Interesting,' says Robbert, because nostalgia is often negative, recalling something that will never come back, which is perceived as disappointing. But when listening to rap, nostalgic memories are positive. It actually increases well-being.'

Robbert also noticed that rap is often listened to to switch between social environments, for example, on the way from family life to work. 'That gives the right energy for the next task.'

Follow-up research

Robbert: 'These results are very interesting. But we want to investigate more. Is there a difference in the use or perception of rap between different groups? For instance, do young people in Rotterdam listen to songs that are different from those of young people in the region? Or do they get something else out of it? Are there gender differences? Or are there differences between young people with a migration background and those without? Or between those with practical and theoretical education? That is why we are going to talk to focus groups soon. That's the follow-up research.'

Robbert funded his PhD research in an unusual way. He asked institutions and organisations dealing with young people to contribute. That raised enough money. Erasmus Trustfonds, Kunstgebouw and the Municipality partly financed the first study. The follow-up research is funded in its entirety by the Municipality of Rotterdam.

Soundtrack of your life

'I grew up in a Vinex neighbourhood in Spijkenisse. Since childhood, I have been listening to Dutch rap,' Robbert explains his interest in the subject. 'It grows with me. One of the most beautiful songs is 'Lotgenoot' by Winne. Sometimes, I still get goosebumps when I hear that song; the message is so powerful. 'You said the only way is up | That's why I know you're down | You're not a friend, you're a fellow sufferer.' It's a coming-of-age song that expresses universal feelings. Many young people experience this, too - Rap music as the soundtrack of your life.'

Robbert Goverts
More information

This interview is part of Spark. With these interviews, we aim to draw attention to the positive impact of the faculty's education and research on society. The stories in Spark give an insight into what makes ESSB students, alumni, staff and researchers tick.

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