Illicit drug use increasingly glamorized in rap music

Rap music has gone from an art form that largely warned against the dangers of substance abuse to one that often glorifies illegal drug use, according to the first systematic social science study of the genre covering nearly two decades.

The study is published in the April 2008 issue of Addiction Research & Theory, a peer reviewed scientific journal.

“Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” says study author Denise Herd, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Students, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley. “This is an alarming trend, as rap artists are role models for the nation's youth, especially in urban areas. Many of these young people are already at risk and need to get positive messages from the media.”

Dr. Herd and her team sampled 341 lyrics from the most popular songs in rap between 1979 and 1997. Each song was categorized in terms of its drug mentions, behaviors and contexts, as well as for its attitude towards drug use and consequences. Rap genres were also categorized, and drug-type mentions were coded and analyzed.

The researchers found that songs with references to drugs increased six-fold over this time span. Songs exhibiting positive attitudes toward drugs and the consequences of drug use also rose exponentially. Drug types mentioned changed significantly, and references of using drugs to signify glamour, wealth and sociability increased as well.

“This indicates a shift from cautionary songs, such as those that emphasized the dangers of cocaine and crack, to songs that glorify the use of marijuana and other drugs as part of a desirable hip-hop lifestyle,” says Dr. Herd. “This is alarming because young children are exposed to these messages. I don't think this is a story we as a society want them to absorb.”

The change in references and drug portrayals was dramatic. Dr. Herd found that, of the 38 most popular songs between 1979 and 1984, only four, or 11%, contained drug references. By the late eighties that number had increased to 19%. The numbers continued to increase, and 69% of rap songs after 1993 mentioned drug use.

While songs early in rap history that mentioned drugs were generally cautionary tales about the dangers of crack, base or powdered cocaine (i.e., “White Lines”), mentions of marijuana and “blunts” (marijuana-stuffed cigars) doubled between 1979 and 1997, with many songs portraying the drugs as glamorous rewards of the hip-hop lifestyle (“The Chronic”).

The latter time period also saw the promotion of cough-medicine abuse in lyrics from Southwestern groups performing an underground rap genre known as “Screw Music.” Although there is limited research on this drug trend, a recent study revealed that 25 percent of at-risk Houston teens reported having tried codeine-laced cough syrup. Those surveyed stated that they tried this musical style in relation to their cough syrup abuse.

“Rap music is like CNN for black teens,” says Dr. Herd. “But much of what is discussed in rap is in code. The kids understand but parents don't.” She urges parents to monitor their children's listening, and to educate themselves on the terms being used in popular songs.

An earlier study by Dr. Herd using the same data set concluded that alcohol use is also increasingly glorified in rap. The current study finds that illegal drug and alcohol use are often paired in more recent rap songs. Recent songs with drug references were three times more likely to have themes related to glamour and wealth compared with earlier titles, and seven times more likely to emphasize drug use as recreation or a part of sex. There is also a trend for more recent songs to emphasize drug use as part of a criminal lifestyle.

Anecdotal media accounts suggest that positive drug references in rap music have not abated. Although her systematic evaluation covers songs up until 1997, Dr. Herd says, “Based on these accounts, the glorification of drugs in rap music remains commonplace.” Given the potential impact, she believes that further research is needed in this area, and prevention strategies should be developed. ”The focus on these two decades was to map the transition. Further research will enable us to better understand what happened to set this evolution in motion. This may help us find ways to reverse or counter the trends.”

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