Tales from the Mic: A Content Analysis of 10 Years of Hip-Hop Lyrics

Jomo W. Mutegi
Associate Professor of Science Education and
Director Urban Center for the Advancement of
STEM Education (UCASE)
Indiana University, IUPUI, Indianapolis

Vanessa R. Pitts Bannister
Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education
Florida A&M University
Tallahassee, Florida

Bryan Nichols
Assistant Professor of Science Education
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Florida

Damien Priester
Master Trainer
Prestige Fitness
Orlando, Florida

YaVonna Murdoch
Undergraduate Student
Indiana University, IUPUI, Indianapolis

LaJaysha Richardson
Undergraduate Student
Indiana University, IUPUI, Indianapolis


In recent years, there has been a pronounced growth in scholarship which advocates for the use of hip hop in school instruction. In spite of significant concern over the negative messaging associated with hip hop, advocates of hip hop based pedagogy have persisted. One of the contentions made by advocates of hip hop based pedagogy is that “negative” lyrics represents a small portion of hip hop. This contention lacks face validity. It contradicts the lived experience of the authors and scholars advocating this position do so without empirical support. The aim of this article is to report findings of a study intended to determine the degree to which negative lyrics represents a small portion of hip hop. To evaluate this claim, 49 hip hop songs were randomly selected from the Billboard 100 Hot Rap Chart. The population database represented the top songs listed each week from January 2003 through June 2012. Selected songs were read and coded by six raters representing diverse ages, races, genders and socioeconomic statuses. Results indicated that across all raters, the lyrical content of the sample songs were overwhelming characterized as negative. The article concludes with implications for future research.

Keywords: African Americans, Content Analysis, Cultural Influences, Music, Popular Culture, Race


They were asking, “What can we do to help the Black children in our math class? And they were looking at me and talking like they wanted me to do a magic trick. I don’t have pixie dust in my pocket that I can sprinkle on Black children and… *poof* …high math scores. (LaTasha Thomson, Doctoral Student)

The excerpt above is taken from a conversation that I (Mutegi) had with a colleague who at the time was a doctoral student of mathematics education. As part of her research LaTasha spent a lot of time in high schools working with administrators, teachers and students to understand and improve the mathematics education of African American learners. This quote represents a theme that ran through many of our conversations about that experience: specifically, the idea that African students were largely regarded as “inferior others” (Mutegi, 2013) by the administrators and teachers charged with educating them. What is more, the students were regarded as exotics that could only be reached by some singular, miraculous fix, or as LaTasha put it… some magical “pixie dust.” The search for a singular, miraculous fix is a prominent feature of education broadly. Whether the idea is open education (Cuban, 2004; Sobel, 1975), discovery learning (Alfieri, Brooks, Tenenbaum, & Aldrich, 2011; Mayer, 2004), brain based learning (Davis, 2004; Jensen, 2000; Wolfe, 2006), block scheduling (Maltese, Dexter, Tai, & Sadler, 2007; Wronkovich, 1998), cooperative learning (Bruce, 2007; Cohen, 1994; Kagan, 1994), response to intervention (Harris-Murri, King, & Rostenberg, 2006; Klinger & Edwards, 2006) or any one of dozens of other pedagogical innovations, a veteran teacher has seen many such innovations come and go (and some even come back again).

It is not our contention that pedagogical innovations such as these are necessarily “bad.” We facetiously characterize them as singular, miraculous fixes because at some point each received an inordinate amount of attention amongst educators. At some point each was widely regarded as the way that education should be enacted, and at some point each faded away making room for the next “new thing.” What is detrimental or “bad” is that many of these innovations rose to prominence with widespread adherence and very little scrutiny. Adherents cling to the miraculous fix “because it works!” Unfortunately however, the empirical research base that establishes the effectiveness of a given fix is sometimes marginal if it exists at all. When we do see an empirical research base around many of these types of innovations, the research is often years behind the implementation.

Enter hip hop based pedagogy (HHBP), which represents one of the recent pedagogical fixes. If the question is, “What can we do to help the Black children in our math class?” proponents would present HHBP as the answer. For many, it promises to be a vehicle through which cultural outsiders can reach and connect with the exotics. However, like many other pedagogical innovations there is no substantial, empirical research base that establishes the effectiveness of HHBP. In fact, scholarship that advocates for the use of HHBP is often inherently contradictory and counterintuitive. What is more, some of the major claims are highly questionable.

One example can be found in claims regarding the messaging of the genre. In many ways popular hip hop songs are identified as offensive and detrimental in their lyrical content. Despite this, one of the contentions made by advocates of hip hop based pedagogy is that the “negative” lyrics to which so much attention is paid is a very small portion of hip hop. Emdin (2010c) provides a good example, “While I do not support or condone the gratuitously violent or hateful lyrics that are in some rap lyrics, it is important to recognize that these lyrics only provide a thin slice of hip-hop and an even thinner slice of hip-hop culture” (p. 5). The claim that negative “lyrics only provide a thin slice of hip-hop” is a major claim, and it is a claim that is clearly problematic. It is contradictory to both our lived experience and to any available evidence. At the very least, studies have shown that hip hop is inordinately violent (Jones, 1997) and misogynistic (Hunter & Soto, 2009) in its content. Unfortunately, however, advocates of HHBP offer no empirical support for their claims.

This is not a benign claim as music and its lyrical content are not without effect. In fact there is a substantial body of literature that has firmly established the ability of music to affect a wide range of human thinking and behavior, including: human emotion, human behavior, human cognition, buying decisions, indoctrination, and physiological healing (e.g. Ghetti, 2013; Tan, Yowler, Super, & Fratianne, 2010). It is our opinion that HHBP differs from many of the other pedagogical innovations in the potential harm that it can cause African American learners. While open classrooms may have been inconvenient in some respects, the innovation does not instill and validate in the minds of children notions of violence and misogyny. Our intention with this study is to provide an empirical basis from which conclusions can be drawn about the prevalence of “positive” or “negative” messages in hip hop lyrics. Clear understanding here is essential for educators seeking to use HHBP as a mode of instruction for African American learners.

Literature Review

Hip Hop Music as Pedagogy

Proponents of hip hop pedagogy have grounded their advocacy in a set of assertions pertaining to the relative merits of hip hop as a musical genre. One of these assertions is that hip hop represents the culture of urban youth (Dyson, 2007; Emdin, 2010b; West, 2004). An example of this assertion comes from an essay by Emdin and Lee (2012) wherein they posit that, “Hip-hop is the culture of urban marginalized youth. It is an amalgamation of the thoughts, words, and behaviors / actions of those who dwell in urban settings and have traditionally been marginalized from socioeconomic and educational attainment” (p. 2). Closely related to the notion of hip hop as culture is the idea that rap is an artifact of this culture (Emdin & Lee, 2012). Love (2015) identifies graffiti and urban fashion as other artifacts of hip hop culture.

A second assertion is that hip hop effectively captures and represents the experience of being Black in America. For instance, Rebollo-Gil and Moras (2012) suggest that,

By denying the possibilities of the empowerment for both black men and women in rap, we ignore the political nature of the genre. When we hear our white students who vehemently oppose affirmative action in the most racist of terms, singing along with rapper Kanye West about the need for reparations, we cannot help but stand in awe at the artistic ingenuity of the genre. What other trend has had such large-scale abilities to bring the experience of being black in America to such mainstream venues? (pp. 130-131)

These assertions serve as the foundation for arguments from HHBP advocates that teachers should adopt hip hop practices (Bridges, 2011; Emdin, 2010a). For example, Emdin suggests that in order to “…find more authentic ways of using hip-hop culture in a classroom, educators should become immersed in student culture to the point that creating or enacting a curriculum reflects insider perspectives on students’ hip-hop lifeworlds” (p. 9).

There have been a number of scholars and journalists who have challenged the veracity of these and similar assertions (e.g., Kilson, 2003; Tate, 2004). In a commentary on the social and cultural influence of hip hop McWhorter (2003) argues very pointedly against the redemptive potential of hip hop.

Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success. (pg. 66)

Music and Human Behavior

Despite a small but definitive body of work that establishes the role of music broadly (and hip hop music specifically) as an influencer of attitudes and behavior, educators who advocate for HHBP have done very little in their scholarship to acknowledge and account for this empirical work. Fortunately there is some work in this area that could serve as a good foundation.

In 2004 British Transport Police were at their wits end trying to curtail gang presence and criminal behavior in London’s subway system. So, they tried an innovative approach. They began playing classical music in all the London subway stations. In just six months, incidents of robbery dropped 33%, assaults dropped 25%, and incidents of vandalism dropped 37% (Timberg, 2005). Although the story of British subway security does not qualify as a controlled experimental trial, it has not deterred other local law enforcement officials and entrepreneurs from following suit. Similar efforts have been undertaken in Hartford, Connecticut; Atlanta, Georgia; West Palm Beach, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; Sydney, Australia, and Canada (Burgard, 2006; Ruhe, 2006). These efforts are given fuel by the idea that human behavior can be greatly influenced by music.

In a study that could be characterized as a controlled experimental trial, Ziv and Dolev (2013) examined the effect of calming music on bullying among 56 sixth-grade students. Researchers developed a questionnaire that allowed students to report the incidence of bullying during recess. Students responded to statements such as, “I was made fun of,” “I was hit,” or “I was prevented from playing.” Data were collected over a three-week period. During week-one, researchers collected data after recess without any intervention. These data provided researchers with a baseline assessment of students’ typical bullying behavior. During week two, researchers played 20 minutes of calming music during recess, and collected data using the questionnaire following recess. During week-three, researchers collected data following recess, but no music was played during recess. Results indicated significant decreases in bullying during week-two when calming music was played. During week-three when music was again absent from recess, bullying increased significantly over week-two incidents. However, it still remained significantly lower than week-one.

The study by Ziv and Dolev (2013) provides fairly convincing evidence of what the British Transport Police (and many others) accept intuitively, that music does have an influence on human behavior. Their work resonates with studies that have shown connections between behavior and music (e.g. Benjamin, 1999; Lawrence & Joyner, 1991). While these studies empirically establish a relationship between music and behavior, they go further. They also begin to direct our attention to types or qualities of music that can evoke specific classes of behavior. So where Ziv and Dolev identify “calming” music as a cause of reduced bullying, (Benjamin, 1999) identifies rock music videos with aggressive lyrical and violent visual cues as a cause of aggressive behavior. Similarly, Lawrence and Joyner (1991) identify heavy-metal rock music (regardless of lyrical content) as a cause of increased misogyny in males.

There is also some work on the impact of hip hop on behavior. Johnson, Adams, Ashburn, and Reed (1995) conducted a study of the impact of rap music on 60 inner-city, African American adolescents’ attitudes towards dating violence. Students were organized into 4 groups (1 male control, 1 female control, 1 male experimental and 1 female experimental). Students in the two experimental groups were shown 8 rap videos. According to the researchers, the videos selected did not contain any violent imagery and the songs that accompanied them did not contain violent lyrics. Two examples of the videos shown are “Whoomp There It Is” by Tag Team and “I Get Around” by Tupac Shakur. While the videos do not depict violence, they do feature scantily clad women who dance around the rappers throughout the videos.

All four groups were presented with a vignette depicting an incidence of dating violence, and were asked to answer questions about the appropriateness of the characters’ responses in the vignette. The experimental groups responded to the vignette after viewing the videos. The only task for the control group was to respond to the vignette. Results showed that female respondents who viewed the rap videos were more accepting of dating violence than were females who did not view the videos. There was no significant difference between the experimental and control groups among the male respondents. This study by Johnson, Adams, et al. (1995) and others like it (Cundiff, 2013; Johnson, Jackson, & Gatto, 1995; Kistler & Lee, 2010; Tropeano, 2006) establish what again is known intuitively by many, specifically that hip hop music can impact attitudes in negative ways.

In a study of the prevalence of sex and violence in music videos, Jones (1997) conducted a content analysis comparing music videos of five music styles (rap, hip-hop, R&B-soul, country & Western, and pop). While Jones found that there was no significant difference in the prevalence of sex and violence in the rap videos as compared to the others, he also found that rap videos contained significantly more references to guns, drugs, alcohol and gambling. Hunter and Soto (2009) conducted a content analysis of 49 of the “most popular rap songs” over a two-year period (p. 170). Their analysis focused exclusively on the presentation of women in those songs. Their findings revealed a pronounced misogyny in the ways that women are portrayed. According to the authors, women are often presented as sex workers or as lackeys for the male protagonists. They also point out that the images of women presented in the genre closely mirror the same images of women presented in mainstream pornography.

From this it is clear that the redemptive value of hip hop is contested terrain. On one hand, hip hop based pedagogy advocates argue that hip hop offers music that is benign (even empowering), and that instances of violence or misogyny in hip hop lyrics are few and far in between. By contrast, noted scholars and journalists argue that hip hop is decidedly disempowering. While there are many conclusions that can be drawn from these studies, there are two that we deem especially important for the present study. First, it is clear from these studies that music (both the musical score and the musical lyrics) exerts an influence on human thinking and behavior. Second, the direction, the duration and the degree of influence varies based on a number of factors, including amount of exposure, listener characteristics and musical genre. If we accept that music is not without effect, it then becomes important to consider the possible effects that hip hop may have on African American learners. In light of the well-established impact that music has on human behavior and thinking, the present study seeks to weigh the argument of HHBP advocates against an empirical analysis of hip hop lyrics. Our goal is to determine the degree to which messaging in hip hop lyrics can justifiably be characterized as either “negative” or “empowering.”


One of the early challenges we faced was a clear identification of songs that comprise the genre characterized as hip hop. Historically, music that could be characterized as hip hop has either carried many different labels or been grouped with other musical genres (e.g. rap, hip hop, R&B, urban contemporary, soul, rock & roll). The labels and categorizations vary depending on the time period, the market and the individual or organization characterizing the music. For example, in their 2012 chart archives (http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/2012), Billboard.com has two categories: “Hot Rap Songs” and “Hot R&B/Hip Hop.” These two distinct charts bear two distinct labels, yet in some instances they feature the same songs by the same artists. For example, “The Motto” by Drake and Lil’ Wayne, “N***** in Paris” by Jay Z and Kanye West, and “No Lie” by 2 Chainz and Drake all appear on both charts (George, 1982; "R&B now soul," 1969).

A second challenge we faced was identifying the population of hip hop music from which we could draw our sample. Recall that the claim we wish to test through this study is that negative “lyrics only provide a thin slice of hip-hop.” This claim is often made by advocates of HHBP, who simultaneously draw a distinction between “commercial” and non-commercial hip hop. A good example can be found in Petchauer’s review of hip hop in educational research. “Because of the commodification and exploitation of cultural forms such as hip-hop in the mid-1980s, today most commercial media representations of hip-hop portray it as a narrow musical genre synonymous with rap music” (2009, p. 946). He goes on to argue that “other” ostensibly non-commercial hip hop practices flourish in local scenes around the world.

Song Selection

Each week, Billboard Magazine publishes the Hot 100 which is a list of the 100 most popular singles for the week. The list is a compilation derived from various data sources including: singles that received the greatest radio airplay, singles that sold the most through record stores, singles that sold the most digitally, and singles that were streamed the most through internet venues. Several data collection companies contribute to the compilation of these lists, including Nielsen SoundScan, Billboard Magazine, Arbitron and the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (Pietroluongo, 2013). Data collection for the Billboard Hot 100 is continually updated to reflect the ways that music is accessed and consumed (Mayfield, 2003, 2005). For example, in one of its earlier manifestations data were collected on the number of jukebox plays that songs received.

Using the Billboard Hot 100 as a source database, we pulled all songs that appeared on the Billboard Hot Rap chart (http://www.billboard.com/charts/rap-songs#/charts/rap-songs?chartDate=2005-04-04) from January 2003 through June 2012. The Hot Rap Chart features the 10 (or 15 depending on the year) most popular rap songs each week. There are 490 weeks represented in the time period running from January 2003 through June 2012. We selected this chart because it represents the only chart that lists rap/hip hop songs separate and apart from other genres.

We randomly selected 49 weeks from the list of 490. We then randomly selected one chart position for each week. Finally, we pulled the lyrics for each song represented by the chart position for each week. From this population of songs, we had the lyrics for a sample of 49 randomly selected songs.

Code Development

Prior to coding the 49 songs that comprised our sample, the two lead authors (Mutegi and Pitts Bannister) randomly selected five additional songs from the same population and independently read the lyrics for the songs and denoted themes that stood out from that reading. The guidelines used were as follows: “Read the lyrics of each of the following raps songs and make note of any themes that come to mind as you read. The unit of analysis should be a complete and independent thought or idea, by which we mean whatever you regard a complete thought to be. Highlight the complete thought and identify the theme represented by the highlighted portion.”

After independently reviewing the five additional songs, Mutegi and Pitts Bannister met to discuss discrepant codes and agreed upon common terminology to represent the identified themes. From that initial meeting seven themes stood at as recurring across all songs. These were: (a) drug/alcohol use (DAU), (b) hypersexuality (HSX), (c) materialism (MAT), (d) misogyny (MSG), (e) race-hatred (RHT), (f) violence (VLC), and (g) vulgarity (VLG). At this initial meeting we noted that all identified themes were “negative.” So we continued code generation by pulling “positive” themes from HHBP scholarship. We drew from Bridges who “highlights three organizing principles drawn from hip hop culture” (2011, p. 325). These organizing principles are: h) call to service (CTS), (i) commitment to self-awareness (CSA), and (j) resistance to social injustice (RSI). Together these 7 themes and 3 organizing principles comprised the 10 codes used for data analysis of the full sample.


Coding of the 49 songs in our sample followed the same basic guidelines as those that guided theme development. Raters were instructed to, “Read the lyrics of each of the following raps songs and identify portions of the lyrics that fit any of the following 10 themes. Please highlight the portion of the lyrics that fits a given theme and label the highlighted portion.” Raters were also advised of the following principles:

  1. It is OK if your labeling of an item does not match the labeling of another rater. We want you to report your own interpretation of the lyrics.
  2. When you code the lyrics, you should look for a complete thought. What you regard as a complete thought may differ from what other raters regard as a complete thought. You rating should reflect your own interpretation of a complete thought.
  3. If you think it is appropriate, it is OK to assign multiples code to one complete thought.
  4. If there are themes that you deem important, but that are not represented by one of the 10 codes provided, please highlight the related lyrics and give it a label that you feel is appropriate.

Finally, raters were provided with the following list of codes and related descriptions to inform their understanding of each: (a) DAU (drug/alcohol use refers to advocacy of the provision, selling and consumption of drugs and alcohol), (b) HSX (hypersexuality refers to objectification of male or female sexuality), (c) MAT (materialism refers to glorification of money and material objects or equating people’s worth to money or material objects), (d) MSG (misogyny refers to the mistreatment of women, rudeness or disrespectfulness to women, or prostitution), (e) RHT (race-hatred refers to the use of racial slurs to denigrate Black people, or any degrading references to Black people), (f) VLC (violence refers to advocacy of excessive or unwarranted violence including sexual violence or gun use), and (g) VLG (vulgarity refers to excessive use of curse words, graphic descriptions of sexual things). For clarity on the three “positive” themes, h) call to service (CTS), (i) commitment to self-awareness (CSA), and (j) resistance to social injustice (RSI), raters were directed to Bridges (2011, p. 325) article.

Typically when data is coded using raters there is a drive for consistency among the raters. Inter-rater reliability becomes a measure of the confidence we can have in the objectivity of the coding. We opted for a different approach in this study. In this study, our raters represent listeners. To argue (as HHBP advocates have) that negative hip hop lyrics represent a thin slice of hip hop, is a subjective determination. Our goal was to have listeners (or raters) make this determination in their own way, using their own subjective criteria within loosely defined boundaries. We believe that we move towards objectivity when there is a shared consensus across a range of raters, examining a range of musical lyrics derived from a fairly large span of time. For these reasons we did not attempt to reduce subjectivity. Instead, we embraced it.

Following are a few examples of how different raters read and coded lyrics. The first example comes from a song by Young Jeezy titled “Leave You Alone.” The text in Table 1 is from the first four lines of the first verse.

Table 1
Rater's Codes for "Leave You Alone"
Lyrics Coding Rater
I got my mind on my money    
All I need’s a bad bitch misogyny  
that I can run the city spend this cash with materialism  
that I can run through this city spend this cash on   JM
I got my mind on my money    
All I need’s a bad bitch vulgarity  
that I can run the city spend this cash with materialism  
that I can run through this city spend this cash on materialism DP
I got my mind on my money materialism  
All I need’s a bad bitch vulgarity  
that I can run the city spend this cash with    
that I can run through this city spend this cash on   YM
I got my mind on my money    
All I need’s a bad bitch misogyny  
that I can run the city spend this cash with    
that I can run through this city spend this cash on   LR

From this example, it is clear that raters differ in what they identify as the unit of analysis. It is also clear that there are differences in the coding for lyrics. For example, “LR” and “JM” code “bad bitch” as misogyny, whereas Priester and Murdock code it as vulgarity.

The second example comes from a song by Kanye West and Jay-Z titled “N***** in Paris.” The text in Table 2 is from the first six lines of the first verse.

Table 2
Text from “N**** in Paris
Lyrics Coding Rater
So I ball hard muhfuckas wanna fine me vulgarity  
But first niggas gotta find me race-hatred  
What's 50 grand to a muhfucka like me materialism, vulgarity  
Can you please remind me?    
Ball so hard, this shit crazy vulgarity  
Ya'll don't know that don't shit phase me vulgarity  
The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy vulgarity JM
So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me materialism, vulgarity  
But first niggas gotta find me race-hatred  
What's 50 grand to a muhfucka like me materialism, vulgarity  
Can you please remind me?    
Ball so hard, this shit crazy vulgarity  
Ya'll don't know that don't shit phase me vulgarity  
The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy vulgarity DP
So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me    
But first niggas gotta find me    
What's 50 grand to a muhfucka like me materialism, vulgarity  
Can you please remind me?    
Ball so hard, this shit crazy    
Ya'll don't know that don't shit phase me    
The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy   YM
So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me vulgarity  
But first niggas gotta find me race-hatred  
What's 50 grand to a muhfucka like me vulgarity  
Can you please find me?    
Ball so hard, this shit crazy vulgarity  
Ya'll don't know that don't shit phase me vulgarity  
The Nets could go 0-82 and I look at you like this shit gravy vulgarity LR

Here again we see that raters differ in identification of “a complete thought” as well as the specific codes applied to those complete thoughts. What is noteworthy in both of these examples is that even with loosely defined rating guidelines there is a high degree of consistency among the raters. There are few starkly contradictory interpretations of the lyrics. While one rater might code a text as VLG another might code it as MSG. In this example, there are no instances of that same text being coded as CSA. This same consistency is seen throughout the entire data set.


There were a total of six raters who reviewed all 49 songs in our sample. Because our coding system relies on a high degree of subjectivity, we feel it is important to provide readers with a bit of background on each of the raters. The raters were each asked to compose a brief description of themselves including their age, educational level, socioeconomic status, and family background. Raters were also asked to describe the degree to which they listen to hip hop music. The rater descriptions are presented in the order of authorship.

At the time of our study Dr. Jomo W. Mutegi (JM) was in his early 40s. Jomo earned his doctoral degree from Florida State University. He characterizes his upbringing as poor or lower middle class. He was reared in a single parent home with his mother and younger sister. They lived in the inner-city of Cleveland, OH in the Glenville area. Once an avid listener of hip hop, Jomo reports that he stopped buying the music in 2005 because it was “too disturbing.” Jomo characterizes his current SES as middle class. Dr. Vanessa R. Pitts Bannister (VPB) was in her early 40s. Vanessa earned her undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees from South Carolina State University, Bowling Green State University and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively. Vanessa characterized her family as middle class.

At the time of our study Dr. Bryan Nichols (BN) was a 40-something, postdoctoral fellow at the University of South Florida. Bryan earned his Ph.D. in science education and M.S. degrees in marine science and journalism. He grew up on military bases across Canada, and has lived and worked in a wide range of sociocultural settings, from remote logging camps in British Columbia to Garifuna towns in Belize. According to Bryan, as a teen he was a huge fan of rock music. He still appreciates music from that perspective. Rock music for Bryan has a number of themes, but most notably it addresses fun, love/sex, and rebellion. He sees similarities in how these themes are found in present day hip hop. Damien Priester (DP) was a 25-year-old African American male. Damien earned his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of South Florida. Damien, the second of three children, characterizes his family as middle class and notes that in the neighborhood where he was reared, most people owned their homes. He also points out that although both of his parents worked, he was the first in his family to graduate with a college degree. According to Damien, a lot of his friends were not as fortunate as he was. Damien characterizes himself as an avid listener of hip hop. Damien wrote, “I believe that most hip hop artists grew up poor, in gangs and dealing drugs and the only real way out for them was through music. Therefore, the only thing that inspires their music is situations that they have been through in the past. They grew up in the ‘ghetto’ seeing violence and drugs on a regular basis. They have become products of their environment. When they actually start earning money, it doesn't change them it just made them more of who they really are.”

At the time of our study Yavonna Murdoch (YM) was a 19-year-old African American female freshman at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis majoring in exercise science. She was a member of both the Student African American Sisterhood (SAAS), and the National Technical Honor Society. She was reared in Fort Wayne, IN, in a family of six. Yavonna characterizes her family as middle class. Yavonna characterizes herself as a moderate listener of hip hop. LaJaysha Richardson (LR) was also a 19-year-old African American female freshman at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. LaJaysha’s major was pre-med. She was a member of the Nation Honor Society, the Student African American Sisterhood (SAAS), and Pre-med club. LaJaysha characterizes her background as middle class. She is frequent listener of hip hop.


The ultimate question that this study seeks to address is, “To what degree do ‘negative’ lyrics represent a thin slice of hip hop?” The final results of our content analysis yielded one primary finding and two insights that we believe are useful for future research. The findings are summarized in Table 3 which shows the percentage of complete thoughts identified and coded by each rater. These data show overwhelmingly that raters coded lyrical content as negative. In the aggregate, 3,926 complete thoughts were identified and coded by the six raters. Only 12 (.31 %) of these complete thoughts were rated as positive.

Table 3
Percentages of Complete Thoughts by Raters
DAU 11.73% 9.33% 18.78% 15.63% 14.89% 17.20%
HSX 19.05% 13.99% 16.59% 22.08% 19.45% 33.06%
MAT 11.50% 26.53% 17.47% 7.29% 30.09% 0.41%
MSG 21.02% 30.17% 13.10% 6.25% 5.78% 8.50%
RHT 10.34% 11.37% 0.00% 12.08% 1.22% 13.78%
VLC 4.76% 3.06% 10.48% 5.83% 7.29% 7.36%
VLG 21.60% 5.54% 18.34% 30.83% 21.28% 19.69%
CTS 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
CSA 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
RSI 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Total Codes 1722 686 229 960 329 965
Total Negative Codes 1722 686 217 960 329 965
% Negative Codes 100% 100% 94.76% 100% 100% 100%
Total Positive Codes 0 0 12 0 0 0
% Positive Codes 0% 0% 5.24% 0% 0% 0%

One insight garnered from this study is that rater codings are largely influenced by the prior knowledge, experience and perspective that raters bring to the task. One place where this is evident is in the total number of complete thoughts identified. For example JM, identified far more complete thoughts (1,722) than any of the other raters, identifying nearly twice as many as LR (965), the next highest rater. When explaining his coding process, JM pointed out that he coded many complete thoughts multiple times. According to JM, if an idea is in the chorus of a song and is repeated multiple times in a song, it has a greater impact on the listener. So he coded recurring ideas each time they occurred. A second place where this is evident is in the variance between specific codes. While there is general consistency across the 10 categories of codes, there are some outliers that suggest notable divergence in the perspectives of raters. One example is the Racial Hatred (RHT) category. One rater, BN, rated zero complete thoughts as racial hatred. Similarly, YM had fewer than 2% of her complete thoughts placed in this category. The other raters all had greater than 10% of their complete thoughts placed in this category.

Another insight garnered from this study is that the exercise of reading and coding the lyrics was a learning experience for many of the raters, even those who are regular listeners of hip hop. For example, LR pointed out that although she was familiar with many of the songs coded, she began to pay more attention to the lyrics. Reading and coding the lyrics helped her to realize how degrading some of the songs were. Similarly, YM pointed out that reading and coding the songs gave her a totally different outlook on much of hip hop music. Other raters underscored the emotional toll that reading the lyrics took on them. For example, VPB reports that she was only able to code a few songs at a time, because reading the lyrics was dispiriting.

Implications and Conclusion

These findings have implications for both extant and future research. Extant work is largely grounded in the assumption that hip hop as a genre is benign in its messaging. Data collected in this study overwhelmingly contravene that assumption. This is not to say that hip hop with redeeming messaging is non-existent. It does, however, argue strongly against the notion that hip hop with redeeming messaging predominates. One clear implication from this finding is that many admonitions in extant work may need to be revisited. For example, Bridges (2011) advances the notion that teacher education programs should seek out teachers who exhibit the values espoused in hip hop in their own teaching practice. This suggestion is clearly problematic. Our data show that the values that Bridges claims for hip hop were largely absent from the sample of hip hop examined in this study. The predominant values (e.g. drug and alcohol use, misogyny, hypersexuality, materialism, etc.) are inconsistent with values that most people would espouse for any professional, especially teachers.

A second implication from this finding is that some assertions made in extant work may need to be reevaluated. For example, HHBP advocates suggest that hip hop represents the culture of “urban, minority youth” and should be drawn upon as a source of cultural capital in the classroom. Here again it is difficult to divorce what HHBP advocates claim as cultural capital from the predominant values espoused in rap, which HHBP advocates identify as one of several cultural products. So if hip hop culture espouses drug and alcohol use, misogyny, hypersexuality, materialism, and similar values, in what ways are teachers expected to draw upon that culture?

It is noteworthy that six raters varied in their identification of complete thoughts and their systems for coding those thoughts. This is consistent with many learning theories that foreground prior knowledge as a key element in new learning experiences (e.g., Tobin, 1993). What this also suggests is that researchers advocating for the use of hip hop based pedagogy in classroom instruction might do well to explore more deeply the various ways that (a) people situate themselves in hip hop culture, and (b) respond to hip hop artifacts, such as music. Extant work tends to treat “urban, minority youth” as a monolithic group that embraces hip hop as their culture. The experience of our raters suggests that a more nuanced understanding might be useful in constructing a more accurate narrative.

Finally, it was interesting to find that the process of reading and coding the lyrics of these songs produced insight for many of the raters. Future research might explore this reading and coding process as a means by which learners could become more critically aware of both hip hop culture and hip hop as a genre of music.


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Author Note

Early versions of this research report were presented at the 2013 Conference on Research Directions and the 2014 Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association.