By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 11 May 2011)
Studies have been conducted to assess the effects of listening to rap music on teenagers and young adults. Findings thus far are mixed, but overall they suggest that listening to rap music doesn’t cause aggressive or deviant behaviour.
Does Rap Music Make Young People More Accepting of Crime and Violence?
Between 1979 and 1997, the percentage of rap songs with violent content increased steadily from 27% to 60%, and although rap songs often portrayed violence negatively in the past, a greater percentage of the more recent songs glamourize crime and aggression (Herd, 2009).
A study conducted by Johnson et al. (1995) found that young subjects who watched violent rap videos were more accepting of violent actions, particularly against women. Additionally, those who watched either violent or nonviolent rap videos were more inclined to express materialistic attitudes and favour acquiring possessions through crime, and they held more negative views on the likelihood of succeeding through academic pursuits. Another study conducted by the same group found that adolescent females, after watching a rap video depicting women in sexually subordinate roles, were more inclined to express acceptance of violence against women in a dating situation.
Overall, increased acceptance of crime and violence appears to be linked with viewing violent or sexist rap videos rather than listening to rap music on its own (Johnson et al., 1995). Also, Tanner et al. (2009) found that listening to rap is far more strongly correlated with property crimes than crimes of violence among urban youth, and the likelihood of committing such crimes is probably increased by poverty rather than musical preference.
Does Rap Music Promote Misogyny?
Young men who had little previous exposure to rap music were the subjects of an experiment in which researchers had one group listen to rap music with lyrics, another listen to rap music without lyrics, a third just read the lyrics, and a fourth group neither listen nor read. After the exposure, none of the subjects held more negative attitudes about women than they had before, but those who read or heard the lyrics were more inclined to express adversarial sexual beliefs (Wester et al., 1997).
Interestingly, another study found that university students who prefer heavy metal actually hold more hostile attitudes toward women, whereas their rap-loving peers tended to be more distrustful of the opposite sex (Rubin et al., 2001).
Overall, only rap music with misogynistic themes is likely to promote a greater acceptance of violence against women (Barongan & Hall, 1995), and many rap songs are not misogynistic or violent. Cobb and Boettcher III (2007) did find an increase in sexism among males who listened to non-misogynistic rap lyrics. However, the researchers assert that the music was simply activating pre-existing attitudes rather than causing subjects to become more sexist than they had been before the exposure.
Do Students Who Listen to Rap Music Engage in More Delinquent Behaviours?
Research has found that a preference for heavy metal or rap music is associated with higher rates of drug and alcohol use, arrests, and sexual promiscuity, but these problems often begin before young people start listening to rap or heavy metal. This indicates that the music doesn’t cause behavioral problems or addiction; rather, it suggests that at-risk youth are more inclined to prefer heavy metal or rap music (Baker & Bor, 2008; Tatum, 1999).
Miranda and Claes (2004) found that rap fans were more likely to commit violent acts and use drugs, but there were differences based on subgenres of rap, with French rap and gangsta rap being associated with higher rates of deviancy and hip hop and soul linked to lower rates of problem behaviours.
Interestingly, Tanner et al’s 2009 study found that delinquent activity among teenagers who prefered to listen only to rap music differed by race: White and Asian fans were more likely to commit both property crimes and violent crimes, whereas black rap lovers were no more likely to commit either violent or non-violent crimes than black fans of other musical genres.
Does Listening to Rap Music Have an Impact on Academic Achievement?
While a number of studies have associated lower grades with a preference for rap or heavy metal music, academic problems usually start before students develop a taste for these musical genres, so poor grades can’t be blamed on the music. Interestingly, one study found that white students actually improved their academic performances after watching rap videos, as well as expressing more progressive attitudes (after watching politically focused rap videos, they were more inclined to support a liberal black political candidate)(Tatum, 1999). Unfortunately, there was no indication of similar research being conducted with black students.
Does Rap Music Affect Mood?
Listening to rap or heavy metal does not appear to increase suicidal ideation and anxiety, or adversely affect the self-esteem of college-aged men and women (Tatum, 1999).
Oddly enough, a study conducted by Ballard & Coates (1995) found that students who listened to a nonviolent rap song experienced more depressive symptoms than those who listened to a violent rap song, but overall, rap songs were more inclined to generate angry emotions than heavy metal songs.
Has Rap Music Been Unfairly Maligned?
Some research suggests that people may have negative impressions of rap due to subconscious racism. Subjects who were given a violent lyrical passage were more inclined to rate it as dangerous or offensive if they believed it came from a rap song than if they were told that it originated from a country music song (Carrie, 1999).
It’s also worth noting that in Marseille, France, rap and hip hop are thriving musical forms, and many residents believe that the positive effects of this music are the reason why poor North African neighborhoods in the region didn’t suffer the rioting seen in other areas of Paris (Kimmelman, 2007).
Overall, there is no consistent evidence that rap music on its own (without videos) significantly influences behaviors or attitudes. Also, while those who are not fans of rap tend to assume that all songs in the genre focus on violent, criminal, or misogynistic themes, in reality, rap is a diverse genre, with many artists addressing important sociopolitical issues and positive themes.
More Music Psychology Articles
For more information on music psychology, music therapy, and profiles of research into other musical genres, visit the Music Psychology page.
- Baker, F., & Bor, W. (2008). “Can Music Preference Indicate Mental Health Status in Young People?” Australasian Psychiatry, 16(4): 284-288.
- Ballard M.E., & Coates S. (1995). “The Immediate Effects of Homicidal, Suicidal, and Nonviolent Heavy Metal and Rap Songs on the Moods of College Students.” Youth and Society, 27: 148-168.
- Barongan C., & Hall G.C.N. (1995). “The Influence of Misogynous Rap Music on Sexual Aggression Against Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19: 195-207.
- Carrie, F. (1999). “Who’s Afraid of Rap: Differential Reactions to Music Lyrics.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(4), 705-721.
- Cobb, M.D., & Boettcher, III, W.A. (2007). “Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism?” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(12): 3,025-3,042.
- Herd, D. (2009). “Changing Images of Violence in Rap Music Lyrics: 1979–1997.” Journal of Public Health Policy, 30(4): 395-406.
- Johnson, J.; Adams, M.; Ashburn, L.; & Reed, W. (1995) “Differential Gender Effects of Exposure of Rap Music on African American Adolescents’ Acceptance of Teen Dating Violence.” Sex Roles 33(7/8): 597-605.
- Johnson, J.D.; Jackson, L.A.; & Gatto, L. (1995). “Violent Attitudes and Deferred Academic Aspirations: Deleterious Effects of Exposure to Rap Music.” Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 16(1/2): 27-41.
- Kimmelman, M. (19 December 2007). “In Marseille, Rap Helps Keep the Peace.” New York Times, 157(54163): E1-E5.
- Miranda, D., & Claes, M. (2004). “Rap Music Genres and Deviant Behaviours in French-Canadian
Adolescents.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33: 113-122.
- Rubin, A.M.; West, D.V.; & Mitchell, W.S. (2001). “Differences in Aggression, Attitudes Towards Women, and Distrust as Reflected in Popular Music Preferences.” Media Psychology, 3: 25-42.
- Tanner, J.; Asbridge, M.; & Wortley, S. (2009). “Listening to Rap: Cultures of Crime, Cultures of Resistance.” Social Forces, 88(2): 693-722.
- Tatum, B.L. (1999). “The Link Between Rap Music and Youth Crime and Violence: A Review of the Literature and Issues [HTML Version].” Justice Professional, 11(3).
- Wester, S.R.; Crown, C.L.; Quatman, G.L.; & Heesacker, M. (1997). “The Influence of Sexually Violent Rap Music on Attitudes of Men with Little Prior Exposure.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(4): 497.