YOUTH POPULAR CULTURE (YPC)
AND THE HIP-HOP INFLUENCE
First published in
the SIECUS Report - Adolescent Sexuality and Popular Culture
YOUTH POPULAR CULTURE (YPC)
AND THE HIP-HOP INFLUENCE
Hicks Harper, Ph.D.
President and Chief Executive Officer
The Youth Popular Culture Institute, Inc.
America’s youth represent a distinct group with their
own unique popular culture - a culture within which Hip-Hop
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
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
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
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.
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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.
YOUTH POPULAR CULTURE COMPETENCE
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
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
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
- “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
- "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.
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A 17-year-old year female living in an urban area of Washington,
DC, describes effective communication from her perspective.
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.
THE FORMAL FEATURES
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
- “rhythm” driven
- “popular music”
- “attitude” driven
- power-to-the-youth centered
- family connected
- celebrity-icon driven
- jargon specific
- “sports” focused
- to the point
- “keeping it real”
- 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,
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:
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- 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
- 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.
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
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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
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
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
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
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
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 dot.com 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
CULTURAL COMPETENCY IN THE CLASSROOM
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
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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.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Today's youth popular culture
has evolved into a phenomenon much different from what it
was 40 years ago.
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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
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
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:
5. A. Dorr, Television & Children (Beverly Hills, CA:
6. C. P. Kottack, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human
Diversity, 5th Edition (New York, London: McGraw Hill,
7. N. George, Hip-Hop America. (New York: Viking
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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