The social trajectory of rap
Today, you can hear rap music playing in public places without anybody so much as raising an eyebrow, but this wasn’t always the case. Where does it come from? Who loves it and who hates it? And above all, where does it fit into contemporary musical culture today?
In middle and high school, young generations develop musical passions that will stay with them as they grow up. These tastes then help them to stand out or form relationships with others. Focusing on these teenage years, thanks to statistics and interviews with young enthusiasts, Florence Eloy and Tomas Legon are retracing the atypical trajectory of rap in the world of music. From its rise in popularity in the 2000s to today, rap has come a long way on the journey to cultural legitimacy.
Fans and haters
Throughout the teenage years, especially during the middle-school period, rap is much more of a hit with male students. Its rival, so to speak, is R’n’B which is generally much more popular with girls. But these tastes are not always exclusive. While girls are more open to male preferences, boys struggle much more to accept music that is considered feminine. The idea that musical style can be associated with a particular gender is all the more pronounced when we start to talk about music of popular origin. But why?
When teenagers arrive at high school, gender differences become less obvious and musical tastes progressively become more marked by the social background of the listeners themselves. Although rap has become rapidly democratised since the 1990s, the majority of its enthusiasts are still from the working classes. And when this musical genre is popular with the upper classes, there are different motivations for listening to this type of music. The working classes tend to appreciate the virility, authenticity and violence that emanates from this music, while young people from higher classes are more attracted by the aesthetic of the pieces and the techniques used by their chosen artists.
You could say that what some appreciate is what displeases others. The virility, violence or vulgarity of rap will be used by some to justify why they are attracted to this music, and the same qualities will be highlighted by others to explain the disgust the music inspires in them. This attraction or repulsion, as the case may be, for a musical genre like rap goes beyond the lyrics, created by the attitude and image of the rappers themselves. Unsurprisingly, it is mainly teenagers from privileged backgrounds who disapprove of this music, finding it too far removed from their values and habits.
Where do our musical preferences come from?
When it comes to liking or disliking a musical genre, we notice that young listeners tend to distance themselves from the habits passed on to them by their parents during their childhood. The popular music – and rap in particular – that is fashionable during the middle-school period is also the one that parents like the least. As their listening habits show, this period is one of great distinctiveness for adolescents. By seeking, through the music they listen to (but also with many other practices), to differentiate themselves from their parents, they become closer to their generational trends.
Their taste for the most popular music, widely distributed in the mainstream media, makes young people focus on what people their age are listening to the most. This is a time when those who have discovered the musical genre prefer, for example, the rap songs played the most on the Skyrock radio station. By associating rap with their generation, it is above all through these musical genres that young listeners initiate a deeper discovery of music in general and also find out about their own preferences.
While there is a clear rejection of their parents’ tastes, the middle-school period is an opportunity for teenagers to discover all types of genres. By exploring new musical genres, young listeners start to specialise and their tastes become more and more distinct from those of their peers. Learning to classify artists, rap styles, while simultaneously making an aesthetic judgment on what they listen to gives young people the chance to assert their tastes. This new way of listening to rap allows them to explore the entire universe of this musical genre which is filled with diversity.
So many reasons to listen to rap
By deepening their knowledge of rap, young listeners are able to pinpoint why they prefer certain songs to others. They associate music with certain settings, situations, and use it as a tool to communicate with others. Often, these reasons are simply practical. What music should I pick if I want to dance? What music will motivate me? What can I listen to while I’m doing my homework or to send me off to sleep? In many cases, this music then fulfils bodily or social functions. But in some cases these choices are influenced by reasons of a completely different nature.
Particularly for rap and R’n’B, the image behind the music is an essential factor when it comes to what young listeners choose to listen to. More than a simple attraction to the music, these tastes serve to assert a particular position in a social space. Many people use ethical arguments to explain their musical tastes. The authenticity of the lyrics, the attitude and physical appearance of the artists in the videos or interviews, their specific way of rapping and performing are all points according to which young people either position themselves in favour or against an artist.
Although it was more difficult or even impossible when teenagers didn’t know about rap, young people in the 2000s were able to develop new ways to understand the genre, to appreciate it and to analyse it. While it has a great presence in public spaces today, different genres stand out and allow young people to reflect and form opinions about the aesthetic of rap. The flow, the beat, the poetry, the instrumentals in each song are analysed by the listeners to argue the superiority of such and such artist. This aesthetic approach to a type of music which, at first, was only considered in terms of violence and vulgarity, opens the way towards a form of cultural legitimacy.
Pervasive rap, a legitimate genre?
Both due to the characteristics of its listeners and the history associated with it, rap is a musical genre that has had an atypical trajectory in comparison to other popular music genres such as rock or electro. This genre, which was largely undervalued in the 1990s, has been ingrained in listening habits since the 2000s, particularly among young people at middle school. Given that new trends emerge thanks to the young generations, rap quickly became legitimate beyond the circles of listeners who made it popular.
While it was still difficult to consider rap a legitimate musical style in the 2000s, this trend was gradually reversed. Acknowledging the value, innovation and creativity that this musical genre could offer allowed it to take its first step towards cultural legitimacy. At first glance, the genre may seem a million miles away from the values promoted by the school, however, rap has become a style of music in its own right, characterised by a particular atmosphere and, timidly and gradually, has infiltrated into our classrooms.
Little by little, more teachers have begun to use popular and contemporary music to encourage students to want to learn. Comparing the verses of rappers to the verses of poets, analysing the rhythm of the beat to learn about tempo, this compromise between tradition and modernity has proven very efficient in many establishments. Choosing to offer music that was attractive and familiar to students allowed teachers to explore the aesthetic and technical dimensions of rap in the learning of music. Thanks to this immersion in institutions, rap and many other hip-hop genres have imposed themselves in the adolescent public space and, by extension, all levels of society.
Rap has evolved since the days when it was considered a “thug genre”. Young fans of this musical genre have, more than just participated in it, paved the way on this journey towards legitimacy. Of popular origin, it was able to gradually expand into the social space without sacrificing the codes that so characterise its singularity. Now more than ever, it is making its way into the public arena to be freed from its prejudices and judgments and rather highlighted for the technical and artistic innovation it provides. But what about tomorrow?
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
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Chloé Dalmau (2023, 18 décembre). The social trajectory of rap. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 25 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vf5n