First published in the SIECUS Report - Adolescent Sexuality and Popular Culture V8#5

Table of Contents



Patricia Thandi Hicks Harper, Ph.D.
President and Chief Executive Officer
The Youth Popular Culture Institute, Inc.
Clinton, Maryland

America’s youth represent a distinct group with their own unique popular culture - a culture within which Hip-Hop recurrently permeates.

Despite adult attitudes (positive and negative) about youth culture, we know we must have a working knowledge of this culture that engulfs and contextualizes our young people’s lives if we are to effectively communicate with them. It is important to understand the information that they process. The rules of social marketing are pertinent and suggest that effective communication begins with knowing your target audience.

Collectively, youth in America represent a powerful movement that transcends race, ethnicity, gender, and social or economic status. America's youth are a walking depiction of their worldview that is externally manifested through clothing, art, attitude, style, movement, music, video, television, film, language, and the World Wide Web.
Youth are a big business, and everyone is struggling for their attention: advertisers; large and small businesses; media conglomerates; the sports, fashion, and entertainment industries; faith communities; health arenas; schools; community-based organizations, families; and even local, state, and federal governments.

Many of America’s youth need adult assistance, nurturing, supervision, and resources because they are at-risk for making negative and harmful behavioral choices. Those entities that will succeed in reaching these young people with their messages or products are those who are the most culturally competent in youth popular culture and who use this knowledge and experience as a foundation for their education and information dissemination outreach strategies.

The need for cultural competence in understanding and appreciating racial and ethnic diversity is well recognized in corporate, community, and government arenas. The influx of international racial and ethnic groups over the past 20 years has made it necessary for America to develop communication efforts that are targeted, authentic, culturally sensitive, and designed to speak appropriately to cultural nuances.
Yet, America has not voiced the same urgency in understanding the culture of youth. It is time that we understand that culture is not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Programs targeting youth must demonstrate a sensitivity to and an understanding of young people and their design for living and interpreting their environment.
By examining youth culture, we can form a guide for predicting behavioral choices and for determining the strategies necessary to change and influence those choices.

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Youth popular culture is simply defined as that which is "in," contemporary, and has the stamp of approval of young people. It is that which has mass appeal; it is nonlinear and eclectic. The culture dictates what become the shared norms that provide young people "with a deep sense of belonging and often with a strong preference for behaving in certain ways."1 It is "psycho-socio-cultural" in that its primary elements involve the reciprocal interaction of individual, social, and cultural forces.
Youth popular culture has aspects that cross racial, ethnic, and geographical boundaries, and while all youth do not behave or think in the exact same ways, many similarities suggest that the vast majority of adolescents fit somewhere within the mainstream of an American youth popular culture. How youth spend their time; what they value; their attitudes, styles, and behaviors; their concerns; and how they interact with mass mediated messages, their peers, and society-at-large constitute youth popular culture.
“Because our mass popular culture is the most influential in the world,"2 youth, as the drivers of the culture, are very powerful. While some scholars maintain that today's youth are extremely diverse in terms of their culture (whether they be heroes, nerds, urban martyrs, or valley girls),3 we contend that the strength of youth popular culture today is in what young people have in common with each other. The challenge for health professionals, educators, and others who intend to effectively communicate with youth is to get a good read on what is happening within this culture and to recognize the commonalities. The key, again, is to become and/or remain youth popular culture competent.
The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) defines cultural competence as:
A set of academic and interpersonal skills that allow individuals to increase their understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and similarities within, among, and between groups. This requires a willingness and ability to draw on community-based values, traditions, and customs and to work with knowledgeable persons of and from the community in developing focused interventions, communications, and other supports.4
CSAP stresses the importance of cultural competence for effectively maximizing substance abuse prevention and intervention efforts. The point is that health professionals, educators and anyone else who targets youth must honestly address the following questions:

  • "How well do I really know the target audience?"
  • "How much do I really know about their racial, ethnic, and adolescent culture?"
  • "How much do I really understand about their worldview and how they interact within society?"
  • “How much do I really know about how young people use media?”
  • "How important is it for me to be culturally competent about youth popular culture?"
  • "Do I base my responses on newly obtained information about today's youth culture, or do I make judgments based on speculation or the opinions of others and/or media?"

Once these questions are addressed, the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation gaps must be filled. The related issues must be explored by taking the most appropriate actions (based on the definition), which will lead to increased cultural competence. The result would be more effective communication with youth populations because health professionals and educators would be more cognizant of their psycho-socio-cultural realities. Communication would be more directly targeted.
A 17-year-old year female living in an urban area of Washington, DC, describes effective communication from her perspective. She states,
Sometimes when young people are being criticized, they get so angry [that] they're not actually listening to what these people have to say. The older generation is not communicating because they’re being so critical without really looking and listening. If they would just listen to what matters to us, they might be able to communicate better. We're not that bad. But the younger people have to check themselves too and listen to what the older generation is saying. They do know a lot. Everybody has to listen to each other. Maybe then we'll get on the same page.
We at the Institute maintain that it is imperative for those who work with youth to seriously explore and consider the potential effectiveness of using what we call youth popular culture’s inherent and associated “formal features,” contexts, and appropriate content for effective communication. We contend that it is important to move beyond society’s and professionals’ negative associations with the culture and to explicate how its characteristics and attributes can best be utilized in the interest of those who are captivated by it on a daily basis. At the same time, we know we must clarify that we are not implying that anyone should give his or her blessing to all aspects of youth popular culture or that anyone should encourage an unexamined conformism by young people.

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Formal features are those elements which give communicative strength to messages and are usually discussed within the context of visual media.5 The formal features of youth popular culture, for purposes of this article, include elements and characteristics that can be manifested through all media and personal communication.
The role that youth popular culture’s formal features play in the everyday lives of youth suggests them as integral factors of youth popular culture. Leading contemporary anthropologist C.P. Kottack discusses the “features” of popular culture, indicating that these “features are sometimes regarded as trivial and unworthy of serious study.”6 We beg to differ, as does Kottack, and contend that ideology, predilection, belief, language, and formal features (which to some degree encompass the other cultural aspects) constitute youth culture - which influences the choices youth make.
The features allow for the shaping and customizing of messages and materials that target youth and that illustrate the creative relationship between distinct styles of form and content. The formal features of youth popular culture provide resourceful pathways for effective and affective communication with target audiences. Examples of these formal features include:

  • bold
  • “rhythm” driven
  • eclectic
  • colors
  • urban
  • non-governmental
  • “popular music” driven
  • “attitude” driven
  • humorous
  • power-to-the-youth centered
  • family connected
  • spiritual
  • celebrity-icon driven
  • non-linear
  • jargon specific
  • dance
  • “sports” focused
  • to the point
  • technological
  • “keeping it real” driven
  • full of verve
  • “posse” driven

The formal features of youth popular culture are multidirectional, eclectic, familiar, and nontraditional (compared to European standards of traditional culture, which may be described as linear, hierarchical, standardized, individualistic, and rule-oriented).
The use of these features in designing pro-health and education messages would make a youth’s cognitive processing and sanctioning of these messages more likely because of the features’ cultural appropriateness and relation to a youth’s already existing mental frameworks of prototypical experiences (schemata).
Youth will respond positively to information couched within a cultural context that genuinely acknowledges their worldviews. Knowledge of youth popular culture’s formal features will assist educators and health professionals:

  • in more creatively facilitating their students’ learning process.
  • in their efforts to develop and design messages targeting youth.
  • in their efforts to get youth interested about sexuality education and living healthy lifestyles.
  • in their efforts to effectively communicate using a variety of formats.
  • in enhancing their cultural competence as it relates to youth as a cultural group.
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Hip-Hop culture is America’s dominant youth popular culture today. This is the reason why adults who target youth must be clear about it. Hip-Hop is a cultural phenomenon in the American mainstream. Noted writer of popular music culture, Nelson George, suggests that we all exist in what can legitimately be called a “Hip-Hop America.”7 While some may argue that other youth cultures (e.g., Rock and Punk youth culture) are just as pervasive in the lives of youth, we at the Institute profess that the masses of young people are engulfed in selected aspects of Hip-Hop and that other popular youth cultures have embraced its vastness, thereby creating an interchange of styles for popularity.
Hip-Hop's legacy lies in the old and ancient traditions of African people,8 however, its contemporary status has evolved from a subterranean Bronx (NY) expression in the early 1970s to a profitable commodity worldwide. The origin of what is now contemporary Hip-Hop lies in the backyards, basements, and communities of inner-city Black and Hispanic/Latino youth.
The name Hip-Hop also has a distinct origin. According to P.T. Perkins9 and the nationally and internationally acclaimed founder of the "Universal Zulu Nation Movement" and "Godfather of Hip-Hop and Rap" Afrika Bambaataa:
The term Hip-Hop was taken out of verses that Love Bug Starski used to say “to the Hip-Hop you don't stop” and it was the Zulu Nation that took it and named the whole culture Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop is something that's the whole culture, the whole picture of the movement which is the break dancing, the graffiti art, the rapping, the scratching, the deejaying, the style of dress, the lyrics, the way you look, the walk, it's all this combined...the attitude.10
Hip-Hop is an “all encompassing” culture for many of America’s youth. It includes forces that affect and influence the choices these youth make in their everyday lives. Hip-Hop represents a strong and unified youth consciousness; it is a powerful and pervasive movement among youth worldwide. Youth, regardless of who they are or where they come from, very likely will identify with at least some aspect of Hip-Hop culture.
Today, the formal features of Hip-Hop are successfully used to communicate a myriad of messages and to sell products which profitably, ethically, and unethically target the masses of young people. The understanding of Hip-Hop and its influence within popular culture has proven to be very effective for influencing behavioral choices and drawing the attention of young people to various subject areas. An exploration of Hip-Hop music (particularly Rap music) will show that youth of various races and ethnic groups are purchasing the music to significant degrees. Research indicates that White American teens continue to purchase Rap in larger numbers than do their African-American counterparts. “More than 70 percent of Hip-Hop albums are purchased by Whites,”11 all of whom contribute to the fact that the music is now a billion dollar industry.12
Rap Music continues to lead the way in album sales growth when compared to other music genres (e.g., R & B, Country, Alternative). According to Byran Turner, President and CEO of SoundScan:
Rap album sales shot up 32 percent in just 12 months, breaking the 80 million-album-a-year mark for the first time. That jump makes for the largest single-year gain by any genre since SoundScan began collecting sales data eight years ago.”13
Hirschorn, past editor of Spin music magazine, compares Hip-Hop and rock music sales data. He supports the argument that “the energy now days is in Hip-Hop” and contends that:
When Hip-Hop albums as strong as Lauryn Hill’s or Outcast’s sell as well as they did, it’s hard to argue about the quality. The question is whether Rock is going to lose a whole generation of young listeners, who are naturally gravitating to Hip-Hop now.14
Hip-Hop’s pervasive influence within the fashion, film, television, and industries clearly show the culture as one of choice for many of America’s youth. It is a culture that must not be ignored because of its mainstay status within the American mainstream. It is a culture whose elements must be explored as a useful contextual backdrop for effective communication. (See “Reaching the Hip-Hop Generation with ‘Pro-Social’ Behavior Messages” in the June-July 1999 issue of the SIECUS Report.)

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Many of America’s educators, regardless of their subject area, still fail to consider culture when determining their teaching methodologies and exploring the best ways to communicate with and to their students.
Consequently, there is an evident lack of cultural responsiveness, relevance, and significance in the classroom environment, and too many students remain uninterested and lack the motivation required to process important information.
Those educators who continue to conduct classroom "business as usual" - failing to realize that "traditional approaches to pedagogy have tended to be rigid and uncreative [and that] they are far from exhausting the wonderful possibilities for teaching and learning"15 - must work hard to take the classroom experience to higher heights by increasing their youth popular culture competence and, therefore, creativity. As a result, their relationships with students will be enhanced; and students will more readily enjoy their learning experience.

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Today's youth popular culture has evolved into a phenomenon much different from what it was 40 years ago.
Unlike the days of Ozzie & Harriet, when youth listened to one popular radio station and looked forward to the annual school dance, many of today's youth are taking risqué spring breaks at summer resorts; going to clubs that cater to adult audiences; participating in gang-related activities; surfing the Net; experiencing peer pressure to use drugs and to have sexual relationships; choosing from over 100 television channels and at least four popular radio stations; having direct access to images of pornography, violence, and drug-use live and via broadcast media; and much more.
Given these realities, and in order to stimulate critical thinking, influence attitudes and behaviors, and maintain the attention, curiosity, and interest of today's young generation, we need a revolution in the way that health and education-related information and messages are designed and delivered. We must supplement our traditional communication strategies with ones that are more sensitive to the worldviews of our youth.
Hip-Hop culture can be convincingly argued to be the leading force within youth popular culture nationwide. It is the pipeline for effectively communicating to and with young people. The pipeline connects to the mental, social, and cultural tenets of the vast majority of America’s youth. As legendary rapper, activist, and author Chuck D puts it: for many young people Hip-Hop is their CNN.
It is my hope that this article will stimulate professional dialogue around the related issues and that all of us will focus even more thoroughly on increasing our youth popular culture competence in an effort to enhance and improve our relationships and communication targeting this very vulnerable population.

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1. A.G. Hillard, III, “Teachers and Cultural Styles in a Pluralistic Society,” NEA Today: Issues’89, vol. 7, no. 6, pp. 65-9.
2. S.Crouch, “Are Music and Movies Killing America’s Soul?” Time, June 12, 1995, p.35.
3. L.Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture (Routledge: New York, 1992).
4. M. A. Orlandi, Editor, “Cultural Competence for Evaluators: A Guide for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention Practitioners Working with Ethnic/Racial Communities,” CSAP Cultural Competence Series #1 (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 1995).
5. A. Dorr, Television & Children (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1986).
6. C. P. Kottack, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity, 5th Edition (New York, London: McGraw Hill, 1991).
7. N. George, Hip-Hop America. (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998).
8. D. Toop, The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop. (Boston: South End, 1984); and P.T. Hicks Harper, Black Educators, Black Elementary School Students, and Black Rap Music Artists on Educational Entertainment Rap Music Video for Pedagogy: A Cultural and Critical Analysis. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, 1993), Dissertation Abstracts International, vol. 5404a. (University Microfilms International No. 9327427)
9. W. E. Perkins, Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).
10. Afrika Bambaataa. (Personal communication, Nov.16, 1992.)
11. C. J. Farley, “Hip-Hop Nation,” Time, Feb. 8, 1999, pp. 54-64.
12. Cable News Network (CNN) & Time, Impact with Bernard Shaw, Oct. 26, 1997.
13. E. Boehlert, “98 Goes Boom: Hip-Hop Leads the Way in Album-Sales Growth,” Rolling Stone, Feb. 18, 1999, pp. 15, 24.
14. M. Hirschorn, “Cost-Cutting Had Rock Music All Shook Up,” The Washington Post, Feb. 20, 1999, pp. A1, A6.
15. A.G. Hillard, III, “Teachers and Cultural Styles.”

For more information on the Youth Popular Culture Institute, contact Dr. Patricia Thandi Hicks Harper at 301-877-1525 or She is also the co-author with Billo Mahmood Harper of the book Hip-Hop’s Influence Within Youth Popular Culture: A Catalyst for Reaching America’s Youth with Substance Abuse Prevention Messages.

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