Who Takes the Rap?

by Miriam Fitting

Rap music touches each of our lives, and not just when cars with twenty-inch speakers drive by blaring it, shaking both the windows of our houses and the fragile membranes of our eardrums. It is a connecting thread running through today's youth culture. Lumping all rap music together and dismissing it as incomprehensible noise can harm society. Society is composed of individuals linked by the relations of daily actions. When one segment of society is cut off or isolated through lack of understanding, it disrupts the delicate web of human interaction, and society can suffer.

Patricia Washington, an associate professor of social work at Indiana University South Bend, concerns herself with this understanding."I focus on individuals and the communities in which they live," she says "People are connected or not connected to the institutions and communities in which they live, and this has an effect on them." Her interest in this area sprang from her experiences growing up on the west side of Chicago and was furthered by becoming active in community service at the age of sixteen when she worked with the Chicago Park District. This background led her to study criminal justice and mental health, and eventually to obtain master's and doctoral degrees in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. After working at other universities and colleges, which have each benefited from her efforts to forge connections between people, information, and policy, she joined the faculty at IUSB, where she has held the position of director of the Master of Social Work program in the Indiana University School of Social Work since 1992.

Washington is not the type of professor who makes an absolute distinction between her work and personal interests. The two overlap and often combine, which is one of her strengths. Her recent work with rap music and youth intervention illustrates this. Her interest was sparked while she worked at Wichita State University where high school students hired for the summer played "strange music that I could not understand and had never heard before" on their breaks, Washington says. Through talking with these students, her interest in rap music developed to the extent that she "started looking at music videos and talking to the young people about the music and who was popular and what was in," she explains. Washington began buying rap music magazines, listening to rap radio programs, and, eventually, playing the music even in her office at the university, to the surprise of nearby colleagues. Her favorite artists include Salt 'n' Peppa, MC Lyte, De la Soul, Guru, and Two Pac.

Rap is not an isolated musical phenomenon with a good beat, according to Washington, but "a form of protest." It is "a form of discussing those things that one does not discuss in polite society," she states, noting its strong connection to the blues. This connection exists in the evolution of the musical form and in the similarity of the subject matter: difficulties with the police, housing, and male/female relationships. It also exists in society's attitude toward rap; "it's the music of the outlaws," Washington says. Her recent scholarly work has dealt with the particular type of rap termed "gangsta rap." Gangsta rap, predominant in the latter 1980s and early '90s, glorifies guns, shooting, and killing. These themes are not as prevalent in current rap music. Rap is evolving from extoling this type of lifestyle to commenting on it, which Washington characterizes as "speaking about not only the activities of those who indulge in that kind of violent behavior, but also talking about the consequences," both for the doer and the victim.

Washington has co-authored a paper with Lynda Dixon Shaver (Bowling Green State University) like "The Language and Culture of Rap Music Videos" and wrote "The Influence of Black Popular Culture Icons on African American Youth," but her work goes beyond such traditonal academic activities to include use of rap songs in hands-on social work. Washington has found rap music to be a particularly effective tool for forging connections with young people. There has been much recent media coverage of the problems of and with youth culture, primarily violence and drug abuse. Although the problems recorded are real and widespread, much of the media's presentation is disturbing and even dangerous, according to Washington. By lumping such problems together as simply "youth" problems and by portraying them as existing only today and right now, the problems and the youth are isolated from culture as a whole. This approach ignores the reality that what affects youth also affects the rest of society and that many current problems, while they may be expressed in new ways, are merely expressions of long existing situations, such as high rates of unemployment, underfunded schools, unsafe schools, high dropout rates, substandard housing, inadequate health care, high mortality rates from homicide (by other youths or the police), and suicide. Using historical analysis to examine the problems of urban youths from low-income households, one can see the "progression of problems over time," Washington notes. These problems did not appear suddenly with the emergence of rap music in the late 1970s and early 80s and rap music is not the cause or the origin of violence among urban youths from low-income households.

Although many youth problems are not new, there is a trend toward increasing violence. There has always been urban violence, but in recent years, this violence has shifted from local, individual urban acts to systemic and widespread violence. It has spread to locations where it was not previously, to "the environments in which young people live and where they go to school," Washington says. "Even the old safe places, such as the schools, are no longer safe." Violence has also spread outward from urban centers to smaller communities nationwide. Rural America is no longer the idyllic safe haven it was long considered to be. Increased violence, gang membership, and drug use are affecting communities of all sizes.

This encroachment of violence affects not only youths, but adults as well. The result is that "the traditional role of adults to insulate and protect children" has changed, and now "the adults are having difficulty protecting themselves, let alone protecting the kids," Washington states. This is not because of increased negligence by adults; it is based upon the difficulty of living with increased violence. More and more, because youths cannot turn to their elders for protection and support, Washington has witnessed them turning to each other, which accounts for the rise in the number of gangs. Other factors also have contributed to the formation of contemporary youth culture. Because most youths have grown up with television constantly in their lives, "much of their learning has been visual learning," she notes. It is to television that they turn for information. Television provides "instant access to what other young people in different parts of the country are saying, doing, thinking, and dancing," Washington says. Music is no longer local; it crosses ethnic, economic, and social boundaries. Rap is a common thread running through youth culture, and television is the primary medium of its dissemination. As Washington puts it, "when you're driving down the street and you hear this base beat and you hear this throbbing rap sound coming after you, you don't know whether the young person you'll see when you turn around will be black or Hispanic or Asian or Euro American or what. They're listening to the same music."

Each generation inevitably differentiates itself from the preceding ones, yet there is danger when the differences are so deep that they prevent the new generation from functioning in the rest of society. Instead of simply imposing a set of strictures on youths and forcing them to adapt to the rest of society, Washington seeks out elements of youth culture and connects them to other parts of society. She builds from this tenuous connection the stronger web of mutual understanding, trust, and interaction that is necessary for individuals to survive in society. Often, "many issues that people are struggling with are related to their lack of knowledge of the institutions that they're dealing with and how one should deal with these various institutions to get one's needs met," she explains. Washington's research translates practical intervention, such as her work at the YMCA Urban Youth Services in South Bend with teenage girls who are at risk. Initially, the sessions with the teenagers involve going to movies followed by loosely directed discussions. Washington then leads the discussions to the movie soundtracks and the relation of rap music to movies. Gradually, she gives the girls magazine articles about rap and rhythm and blues musicians. Eventually, they read traditional literature by such authors as Toni Morrison, Tina McElroy, John A. Williams, and Ernest J. Gaines. In other situations, Washington uses the subjects of rap songs and videos to start discussions with young people. This technique makes it "easier to get them to talk about issues pertaining to relationships or even to get them to talk about issues pertaining to violence and how one deals with violence without asking them if they've been engaged in it," she says. Washington's students who are pursuing master's degress in social work implemented this technique and found it to be effective in dealing with Gary, Indiana, middle school students and youths at a juvenile detention center in south central Indiana. By using rap music videos to begin discussion sessions at a homeless shelter, Washington has discovered that this technique also works with adult audiences. Another important component of her work is using rap music and videos to acquaint older generations and parents with youth culture.

Washington's work fits within a growing interest in popular culture and its functions. At last year's National Association of Social Workers Annual Conference, she and two students pursuing masters degrees in social work presented a paper on preventing violence through the use of popular culture icons to a standing-room-only audience. Approximately three-quarters of the audience were using rap music or videos in their own work with youth who are at risk. There has been a spate of recent scholarly writing on popular culture, its effects, and its uses in a variety of disciplines, including literary studies, history, and culture studies. Although approaches like Washington's differ from traditional approaches to social work, or perhaps because of this, using popular culture as a point of contact is becoming a widespread and effective practice. Washington claims that "social work requires understanding the world of the clients, entering their world." With the use of rap music and popular culture icons understanding grows on both sides; those who are not in positions of authority and those who are learn about each other.

Washington examines situations on many levels: on the level of individual and unique expression, of position in contemporary society, and in terms of historical context. She analyzes the economic and historical factors that have led to certain groups of young people becoming at risk for dropping out of school, being unemployed or underemployed, poor health, residing in substandard housing, and becoming victims of violence in their communities by other youths or by the police. She is a participant in contemporary academic research and education, has advised corporations and policy-making government agencies, and continues to pursue the local, more individualized level of applied social work. Her ability to take action in these varying environments and to bring insights from one environment to another is what makes her effective. Having a multiplicity of perspectives is something she ascribes to being black, female, and growing up in a family where "we were taught to question authority and institutions and to look closely at them and not just assume that they were operating in one's best interest," she says. She sees her work and approaches as colored by this. At all levels, Washington's work is about knowledge and the change it can bring about. "Change does not mean revolution; change comes from a significant amount of information," Washington states. "Change comes from access, understanding, and the ability to process knowledge."

Back to the Table of Contents