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Does rap belong in the White House’s celebration of American poetry?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | May 13, 2011

In the news this week: The Obamas have invited the rapper Common to the “Celebration of American Poetry” at the White House, to outraged accusations that Common is a “thug.”

How fair are these accusations? Before you jump on one bandwagon or the other, consider that the very label of “rap” is likely to influence people’s interpretations of a given set of lyrics. This was demonstrated in a clever study by Carrie Fried in 1996, titled “Bad rap for rap: Bias in reactions to music lyrics.” In this study, Fried presented participants with eight lines of lyrics from a folk song, “Bad Man’s Blunder,” about a man who kills a police officer. A third of the participants were told that the song was a 1960’s folk song by the Kingston Trio (which is, in fact, true), another third were told that the song was a 1990’s country song by D.J. Jones, and the final third were told that the song was a 1990s’ rap song by D.J. Jones.

As it turns out, the same lyrics were rated differently as a function of musical genre- in the “rap” condition, people reported that the lyrics were more offensive and a bigger threat to society, and advocated regulation of the lyrics through warning labels or an overall ban. The “country” and “folk” conditions were significantly lower on these ratings and did not differ. The key factor in this research is that the lyrics that people rated were exactly the same, which allows the researchers to conclude that the results are driven by negative perceptions of rap music. Fried asks, ” Are some songs getting more extreme reactions because they are rap songs, and not because of the actual lyrics involved?” (p. 2136).

Common (Tuomas Vitikainen, Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, people tend to automatically associate rap music with violence (a trend which, ironically, Common has been critical of). That is, when many people hear “rap,” the concept of violence also becomes automatically activated, and influences our interpretation of subsequent information.

I suspect that the automaticity of negative associations with rap is one reason why people have trouble recognizing rap as a form of poetry — something the Obamas are explicitly recognizing through their invitation to Common. So before assuming the Obamas are now cavorting with a “thug” and a “gangster” — just because Common’s art form is rap — consider our own biases and associations with rap music, and take an open-minded ear to the more socially conscious variants of rap music — they’re as different from gangster rap as punk rock is from pop.

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cross-posted from Psychology Today. Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

Comments to “Does rap belong in the White House’s celebration of American poetry?

  1. What an interesting study. I find that when I read rap lyrics as poetry to people who hate rap, that they concede to rap being poetry. It’s funny how people perceive different artists. Johnny Cash was a raging alcoholic who, in his songs, talked about some of the same things that rappers today talk about. However Cash is much more beloved than rappers are. I agree that rap is poetry (though I don’t think I can say that without also saying, that there are many bad poets in rap).

    I talk about it more on my blog (short link below).

    Jill
    http://wp.me/p1AzHf-F

  2. I am happy that the First Lady included a rapper in the celebration of poetry. I’ve been writing poetry since I used poetry to express my grief about President Kennedy’s assassination as a seventh grade student in Texas. I’ve written poetry books and had my poems included in anthologies. I now write poetry on Helium.com. However, the reason I’m so excited about being included in the White House celebration is because I’m starting a program for young adults with developmental disabilities to teach them how to write and perform rap music. I’ve been working in this field for twenty-three years and I know that this program will help these young people learn important skills that many of them have difficulty mastering. I’m hopeful that now that rap has been recognized as poetry and art I’ll be able to get a grant to find my rap program!

  3. Rap belongs in the White House’s celebration of American poetry, if the President chooses to include it.

  4. I don’t think of rap as violence prone – I do think it used to really drive towards that so as to get ‘street cred’. I still don’t like it though – I just think it is bad music and turn it off whether its white or black rap.

  5. The White House ( white in name only ) may be the only place where the collective “WE” share our talent, frustration, joy and sorrow – without judgment. Although the popular – among young suburbanites as well as urban youth, and profitable, RapP has ( a self perpetuated ) bad “rap”, only a fool would not listen, where there is an opportunity – to learn more.

    Thank you again for sharing – keep writing – CAL needs your voice.

  6. Hello my friend- still waiting to find something that I don’t agree with you on. Thanks for sharing this.

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