A New Study Suggests Record Labels Are Ignoring The Popularity Of Pro-Social Hip-Hop
A new study out of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is turning a common misconception about what fans of Rap want to hear on its head. Generally speaking, the radio and the industry at large are often criticized for promoting music with negative messages, ones drenched in violence, drug use, misogyny, and the like. Record labels in particular are blamed for perpetuating negative stereotypes by signing, marketing, and distributing rappers whose content does nothing to uplift or educate the masses. However, as the study in question suggests, Hip-Hop lyrics with “pro-social messages” are what the people really want.
Published in The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, “A Comparative Content Analysis of Anti- and Prosocial Rap Lyrical Themes Found on Traditional and New Media Outlets” is a study in which researchers examined Rap lyrics shared on Facebook by 600 Hip-Hop Heads. These lyrics were then compared to those in songs on the Billboard Top 11 list, from artists with “traditional record-company backing and promotion.” According to a press release announcing the study’s findings, “songs shared on Facebook contained more “pro-social” lyrics, that more frequently espoused positive themes such as gratitude, expressions of faith and spirituality, messages of community building, the power of education and support for political engagement.”
As such, it’s been assessed that “traditional music companies have yet to realize the full financial and cultural potential of Hip-Hop and Rap. When it comes to the type of artists that get signed, recorded and heavily promoted, the big record labels often overlook what researchers call ‘pro-social’ themes.” Rather than focus on whether Rap music contains more “antisocial” lyrics than other genres, the researches in this particular study were more interested in what the social-media behavior of Hip-Hop fans says about what they’re listening to versus what’s being promoted by record labels.
Avriel C. Epps a UCLA studen and Travis L. Dixon, her professor, are responsible for conducting the study. They write in their report “[p]revious studies investigated the content of Rap music within the context of traditional media and found that Rap often contains antisocial themes associated with negative effects. The current content analysis investigates whether Rap’s lyrical themes consumed and shared online are more diverse and less anti-social than Rap aired on traditional outlets.” In what is likely to be no surprise to listeners of Hip-Hop, the lyrics to songs topping Billboard charts were “less varied in tone and skewed more ‘antisocial’ – including such themes as aggression, criminal activity, derogatory language about women, references to illegal drug use and materialism.”
In total, researchers analyzed 213 songs that were either popular on Billboard charts or shared on Facebook by those 600 users. According to the study, the songs popular on the charts featured “antisocial themes” 47% more frequently than the songs being shared on the social-media platform. Furthermore, for the songs more popular on Facebook, “pro-social themes” appeared 16.5% more frequently than in the songs popular on the charts. Researchers relied on previously generated data in other studies as well as Genius.com to analyze lyrics.
These findings support the notion that music consumers are far from passive and actively make conscious decisions about what kinds of messages they not only want to hear in Hip-Hop, but also share with friends. As Epps explains, “[t]hey may also be resisting negative messages that are being promoted by media corporations and using the autonomy offered by social media to find more positive alternatives. Ultimately, I believe this suggests that music labels are leaving money on the table by not investing in pro-social artists, which consumers are actively searching for.”
Noah Preston, vice president of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, responded to the study’s findings, saying “streaming has given every person and mood their own voice. Overall I feel like the trend of antisocial lyrics in Hip-Hop is definitely going to shift to a more positive and diverse one. Because labels have traditionally followed trends, only the loudest consumer was accommodated, but now we live in an age where diversity is key. And while a ton of us do enjoy the violent lyrics at times, we also enjoy other relevant topics and themes within the culture.”
Epps is not convinced, however, that record labels are in any rush to cater to the study’s findings. “[T]he executives I was in conversation with were not receptive to these changes,” she says. As an artist herself (under the name King Avriel), she was in part inspired to conduct this study because of her own difficulties finding labels open to promoting positive content. “The urban music industry is a very heteronormative, patriarchal place, and I was frustrated with how that culture was limiting what I could do as an artist. I was seeing trends on blogs and social media that contradicted music industry executives’ arguments that drugs, sex and violence were the only things that sold in urban music, so I wanted to explore that further through research.”
Today (July 13) coincidentally marks the anniversary of a historic moment in Rap history, particularly as it relates to censorship and lyrical content. On July 13, 1990, 2 Live Crew dropped Banned in the U.S.A. As reported by Ambrosia For Heads in 2015, it was “the first album to be adorned with a parental advisory sticker” and ushered in “a new era in the recording industry and re-ignit[ed] a heated discussion about censorship, freedom of speech, and morality.”
Travis Dixon is now associate professor and communication alumni professorial scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.