Hip Hop, Youth Culture and AIDS

Part 1 on a series of blogs on Hip Hop and AIDS

From time to time, I have the opportunity to work with middle and high school students. One morning, as I entered my video class, I heard one young woman singing a line from the Rick Ross song, Aston Martin Music.I love a nasty girl who swallow what’s on the menu.” It doesn’t take a genius to know what he meant or to realize the connection a young woman makes when she hears and repeats the same lyrics. The recent criticism of Ashley Judd around her comments about hip-hop and rap music reminded me of that surreal moment. In her recent memoirs, she criticized YouthAIDS, an organization she has supported, for public service announcements they made with the rappers, Snopp Dogg and Diddy. “As far as I’m concerned, most rap and hip-hop music — with it’s rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s’ — is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny. “I believe that the social construction of gender — the cultural beliefs and practices that divide the sexes and institutionalize and normalize the unequal treatment of girls and women, privilege the interests of boys and men, and, most nefariously, incessantly sexualize girls and women — is the root cause of poverty and suffering around the world.” Though, all of hip-hop doesn’t deserve this criticism or subscribe to this practice of misogyny, there is a segment of the industry that profits from its perpetuation of a hyper sexual depiction of women, especially young women of color. Whether you support her comments or not, what is most significant is the connection Ms. Judd makes to rap music, sex and HIV/AIDS, one that apparently YouthAIDS failed to make.

In 2006, the RAND Corporation, a leading healthcare research organization produced the study “Exposure to Degrading Versus Non-Degrading Music Lyrics and Sexual Behaviour among Youth.” Dr Steven Martino, who led the US study, said that “sexually degrading lyrics” - many graphic and filled with obscenities – caused changes in adolescents’ sexual behaviour. “These portrayals objectify and degrade women in ways that are clear but they do the same to men by depicting them as sex-driven studs. Musicians who use this type of sexual imagery are communicating something very specific about what sexual roles are appropriate, and teenage listeners may act on these messages.”

This study didn’t tell us something we didn’t already know. Walk through any urban neighborhood in any major city and listen to the kids repeat the lyrics as soon as their favorite rapper comes on the radio. But what this study doesn’t address is the connection between these lyrics and the same audience having some of the high STDs and HIV infection rates in the country.

When thinking of that 16yr old girl in my class and knowing how she was connecting sex to her favorite rap songs, all I could hope was that she was practicing safe sex. According to the CDC, “African Americans were disproportionately affected by HIV infection, accounting for 55% of all HIV infections reported among persons aged 13–24.” Approximately 50 percent of all high school students in grades nine through 12 have had sexual intercourse; almost 25 percent of all 12th graders have had four or more partners. In addition, the sexual behavior of young people is highly influenced by the use of alcohol and drugs, which decreases decision-making skills and has a negative effect on behavior, according to a study by the American Federation of AIDS Research (2001).

These are alarming statistics and yet we are not alarmed as a community. We can no longer cry foul at the mere suggestion between hip-hop and sexual misconduct. This is not what hip-hop is suppose to be, its not the hip hop of my generation. The early days of hip-hop was about bragging about how fly you were, how good you could rhyme and what rapper got all the cute girls. But, with the development of gangster rap and the introduction of drugs and gang culture into hip-hop, women went from being Fly Girls to Hos, Golddiggers, Bitches and nothing more than a good f*ck. When you consider the depiction of women in most rap lyrics (listen to any Lil Wayne or Rick Ross song) its becomes easy to see how Ms. Judd came to her conclusion. But this is not really just about rap and hip-hop. Because when Lil Wayne has faded into dust, there will be another like him, if not worse.  What this is really about is treating youth solely as a marketing commodity. Pick almost any of MTV’s shows, The Jersey Shore or Skins (also known as Porn for Teens) and you can see how drugs, sex and violence are used as marketing tools to seduce them into whatever product is being sold. And although, we need to hold these artists, tv shows, record execs and anyone who makes a profit at the expense of our children accountable for the work they produce, we as a community of adults need to be more accountable as well.

While young people are overwhelmed by messages about sex from the music they listen to, to the shows they watch. The one message they don’t get is how to make healthy decisions about sex. Researchers at APA’s Annual Convention shared some of the latest research on what affects those messages and how parents and teachers can do more to help adolescents make better decisions.

“Christopher Houck, PhD, at Rhode Island Hospital, ran a study looking into whether mentally disordered teens’ “affect regulation” skills — their ability to make good decisions in the face of strong emotions — played a part in their attitudes toward and knowledge about sex. “If you don’t have good affect regulation skills, then if someone’s pressuring you to smoke pot or have sex, you’re more likely to engage in those behaviors,” he said. In a study, Houck used questionnaires to find out about the emotional awareness, affect management skills and attitudes toward sex of 138 seventh-graders in Rhode Island who had been identified as having, or as suspected of having, mental health problems. He then ran an after-school intervention program that taught teens how to identify their own emotions and strategies for dealing with them. When Houck tested those teens again a few weeks later, they reported better emotional awareness and increased use of strategies to get out of situations they didn’t want to be in”.

The same way we want our children to be financially responsible, educational advanced and socially aware, we must also want them to be sexually mature. You may not be able to stop them from having sex any more than you are able to keep them from drinking or smoking but you can arm them with tools to address the social pressures, mentally and emotional challenges of being in a sexual relationship. Safe sex education needs to happen as early as possible as the high infection rates of STDS in middle and junior high schools shows. This can and should include abstinence programs but should not be the sole form of STD and HIV awareness and safe sex education. And all forms of safe sex education should be paired with sports programs and other after-school activities. Studies prove the physical activites improves the academic performance and self esteem of youth that participate in such programs. All this to demonstrate, that the more active youth are, the more involved in sport, social, educational and cultural activities they are. The less likely there will be unplanned preganancies, HIV inections and STDS along with drugs and alcohol abuse. The more positive influences they have, the less likely the negative influences will play a major role in their lives. The simple suggestion from a rapper’s lyric will just be that. Making sure a child has all these positive influences are not just the job of their parensts but has to be the committment of the extended family, school and community. If we make this a community effort, if we take the time and use the resources at hand, then we can make a significant difference in the lives of this generation of youth. Teen pregnancy, STD and HIV statistics will drop but it will come at a cost. It may just hurt the record sales and tv ratings of some of the most popular shows and artists but that should be a chance we can be willing to take.

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