Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

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

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton


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.

You can follow my posts through Twitter or Facebook.

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