We are not just listening to music. We are listening to numerous lifestyles with lyrics and images that are interpreted in many different ways, good or bad. Unlike previous generations, today’s teens are bombarded with digital content on a variety of platforms daily. However, it is not as black and white as it may seem, due to the fact that this is the first generation of teens to be both the producers and consumers of art and cultural content.
This factor is often overlooked and in turn, misunderstood and perceived to be the fault of the teen. Take two vastly different music videos in the rap genre that are currently capturing the attention of teens: “This is America” by Childish Gambino and “Water” by Ugly God. Many people may interpret the images in “Water” as negative, while “This is America” may be interpreted as more of a thought-provoking piece with real meaning.
On the campus of Georgia State University, we pulled aside a few students and asked them a series of questions about the underlying messages in both of the videos, as well as their personal opinions and how they received these messages. We also had a chance to take a look at an artist’s standpoint and interviewed teens who are a part of Atlanta’s Brave New Voices slam poetry team about the pressure as an artist to appeal to a younger audience.
Jaha Bela, an 18-year-old poet, singer, and member of Team Atlanta* going to Brave New Voices in July, told us: “For everything ‘Ugly God,’ does, I think the inspiration is beating his meat … and for Childish Gambino, I think it was growing up as a black man who wasn’t necessarily connected to his blackness.” She put her perspective of Ugly God’s influence and motivation into simpler terms, and acknowledges that there is no real motivation or message behind his songs.
GSU student Calaija, 20, said: “We get over things very easily, like things happen, and then we’re like, ‘Oh, did you see that new Ugly God video’ … somebody just got shot, but we’re talking about a new dance or a new song … but songs with a purpose and a message will be able to be heard later on and will still have the same impact.”
Teens like to keep up with the latest trends to stay relevant and in the moment. But as teens, we often get so entangled in the drama of our daily lives, we don’t really take the time to analyze how this music, and its underlying messages, affect our thinking. We can’t help but take in the derogatory media that is constantly shoved down our throats and then praise it for its popularity. That popularity causes more and more teens starving for validation to turn to this type of music — whether they like it or not — to fit into whatever social hierarchy their school might have and in turn mirror a lifestyle that is portrayed as wild and uncaring, with no core beliefs and a self-destructive nature.
In the New York Times article “Under the Influence of…Music?,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote: “The average adolescent is exposed to approximately 84 references to explicit substance use per day and 591 references per week, or 30,732 references per year.” What effects are these references having on teens today?
Another GSU student, Ajua Burrs, told us: “Ugly God’s video definitely has a negative impact on this generation because a lot of people want to do what they see in that video and have that kind of lifestyle.”
The images in these videos can be interpreted as opposite ends of the spectrum. A spectrum that can go from content that promotes an inappropriate use of drugs and the glorification of alcohol and misogyny, to exposing youth to more impactful and thought-provoking concepts that challenge societal norms and systems. This demeaning genre of music is robbing teens of their freedom of choice by pushing a lifestyle that makes sexual harassment and gun violence the norm, and make it almost necessary for young boy to act like a thug and a young girl to portray a sex object. In Ugly God’s “Water” the lyrics include: “I splash on your b**ch with the water…I pull up and f**k on your daughter.”
In the article “What Influence and Effects Does Rap Music Have on Teens Today?” Nakia Jackson writes: “According to researchers at Florida International University, the more time African American adolescents spent watching the sexualized images in in Hip Hop videos, the more likely they were to engage in sexually risky behavior themselves and endorse it in their peers.”
In the same article, Jackson wrote: “Research done at Western Connecticut State University found that those who listen to music with violent lyrics are more likely to be violent. Rap was born in poor urban communities where violence may be poorly controlled, but social and economic factors can play a much greater role in the prevalence of violence.”
Reflection & Commentary
There are many different ways for music, rap specifically, to be interpreted. Good or bad, right or wrong, the repercussions of these images may not represent the true actions of the teen who hears them. Teens may not be solely at fault when they go out and attempt whatever risky action they saw in the latest music video, ultimately, because it’s what’s most relevant and most appealing. It may be all they’ve ever known.
Instead of criminalizing an individual, perhaps we should be focusing on a music industry that often promotes lifestyles that glorify crime and sexual misconduct that, in turn, makes it the norm for young listeners.
Audio Story: Voices of Teenage Artists
Check out our audio story, sharing the voices of young poets who represent Team Atlanta*, heading off to the international slam poetry competition Brave New Voices in Houston July 18-21.
*Editor’s note: Team Atlanta is organized through VOX’s Atlanta Word Works program, which offers poetry workshops, open mics and slams throughout the year.