Describe your research question/hypothesis or research objective:
To what degree, if any, is socialization—the process in which societal identities are formed—of black youth in Baltimore City influenced by rap music? Given the idea that the mass media has a primary role in influencing elements of culture and shaping personalities and perspectives, I assert the likelihood that rap culture actively influences the cultural capital of black youth. Growing up around rap music in the latter ages of my youth, I became familiar with trends and styles that were ‘in’ as a result of a rapper’s appearance on a magazine cover or from the lyrics in a frequently played song on the radio. The commercialization of rap music additionally marked a growing relationship between endorsement deals and rap artists, thus forming marketing schemes that appeal to rap fans wishing to replicate materialistic identities. In focusing on only black youth I attempt to look at all aspects of black culture that converge with rap culture. Rather than general, mass-mediated popular music, the decision to specifically choose rap music and black inner-city youth allows me the opportunity to focus on historical, cultural, and socio-economic factors that may be buried or go unnoticed with a broader research population. It is important to understand that while rap music has undergone vast changes since its inception, especially with its emergence into mainstream society, rap music is still an element unique to black culture that speaks to values, lifestyles, struggles, and so forth experienced by members of the black community.
Describe the field you propose to study, define its boundaries, and explain any characteristics that will affect your research methodology:
There are four domains that require a definition of boundaries and an understanding of its cultural makeup to properly grasp their relationships with one another: 1) rap culture, 2) rap music, 3) black youth, 4) and Baltimore City. I use Tylor’s (1871) definition to assist in defining rap culture. “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Thus, rap culture is a conglomeration of these elements resulting in a creation of a unique way of life. Secondly, rap music itself is immensely difficult to define with recent genre fusions in music and even differing rap subcultures (Southern rap as compared to East Coast rap or ‘gangsta rap’ as compared to rap music that engages social and political issues). I will define rap music simply as music that embraces or embodies rap culture and is performed in a spoken, yet lyrical content by an emcee or a group of emcees to a beat. Thirdly, black youth I have designated as individuals between 13 and 20 who recognize themselves and are recognized by others as black, or African-American. I have no intention of restricting possible informants with interracial heritage as long as black culture is prevalent in his or her daily life. Fourthly, I decided to define Baltimore City, my field, within its current political designations, West, Central, and East Baltimore. After briefly studying various demographic and political maps of Baltimore, I found that West, Central, and East Baltimore encompass what is geographically and culturally understood as the inner city of Baltimore. While I do want to have an accurate and expansive selection of informants, I intentionally decided to refrain from selecting particular neighborhoods of study before establishing rapport and determining whether or not work in certain areas is feasible.
How does your research project build on previous research in anthropology/cultural studies, or closely related disciplines? Give specific examples of this research and its findings?
Although the field of rap music has not been extensively researched in the capacity of socialization and in disciplines like media anthropology, but the theories backing my research supplements beliefs of socialization and cultural capital held by Altheide and Bourdieu.
What evidence will you need to collect to answer your question? How will you collect and analyze this evidence?
I have selected several methods to help me define the relationships between Baltimore City youth culture and the culture of rap music. These methods will be employed in order to extract information regarding practices and actions of youth, and also attitudes and emotions. Attitudes and emotions are terms more commonly heard in social psychology, yet, ethnographic methods dealing with one’s sensory experience can equally extract useful data on cognition. Cohen states that self-knowledge can be attained and is not less important than social knowledge. He argues,
…although people’s self-knowledge is not easily available to the ethnographer, anthropology cannot continue to be written as if it does not exist, or is immaterial, or, even, is less important than ‘social knowledge’. People’s knowledge of themselves is of critical importance to us for without it we misunderstand them (1992, original italics).
With this in mind, I have extended the idea of photo elicitation to an audio format. This entails listening to a favorite rap album, for instance, and having the subject explain how they may feel about a particular album, how the album came into their possession, what was happening in their life at the time the album was received, or which lines are ‘quotables’. To understand one’s feelings in this context is to understand self-knowledge. In addition to audio elicitation, photo and video elicitation are individually unique in accessing certain forms of implicit knowledge. The goal here is to carefully organize and synthesize elicited information in order to conclude whether or not parallels exist between elicited attitudes and emotions and rap culture. Additionally, Hendrickson expands and explores the benefits of visual field notes as a way to supplement the ethnographer’s written notes. Whether she is drawing a conch shell or attaching an admission ticket to a description and sketch of an event, Hendrickson demonstrates how this can be especially helpful in remembering and organizing mass amounts of field notes, and since drawing is naturally reflexive, the ethnographer-as-tool can be critiqued as well.
Scissors, glue, and bits of the material world brought together on the plane of a journal page open up a universe of possibilities and enable the anthropologist to work as a bricoleur of fieldwork ephemera…The motivations for this sort of archival work vary and at different times reflect emotions, a sense of attachment, a recollection, a visual play, a classification, a kind of comment, and a general engagement with the materials and the ideas these carry (Hendrickson 2008:127)
Using visual field methods as employed by Hendrickson reduces the anxiety that ethnographer’s often express when attempting to later synthesize vast amounts of data. This echoes Malinowski’s approach to mapping out data originally gained through written notes and observations. By using a wide array of methods, I will attempt to tap into both social and self-knowledge. These methods will produce the evidence I need in collecting information from informants that parallel cultural artifacts and actions within rap culture.
What ethical concerns are raised by this project? How are you prepared for them? How will you protect the people with whom you work?
Ethical concerns over drug intake, alcohol usage, and illegal activities, especially when performed by minors, are my primary concerns with this project. There is the potential possibility that during my observations I may experience drug and alcohol use among my informants. Unless these activities prove detrimental to the informant’s mental or physical health, I do not plan to report what may be labeled as ‘problems’ to the authorities (parents, teachers, etc). My primary responsibility and trust goes to protecting my informants. After I finish my fieldwork, I intend to use fake pseudonyms to cover the identity of informants. In this way they are not implicated in whatever they may confide to me.
What contribution does your research make to the field (of either anthropology OR cultural studies)?
With most of my research being backed by theories of socialization and the effects of mass media, my research expands those two fields respectively. Assuming that my hypothesis is correct in that rap music socializes music, my proposed research of understanding to what degree this socialization occurs has the capacity to greatly supplement research within the field of media anthropology and other notions of agency and power. Also, fine-tuned research methods and my critical evaluation of the significance of these particular methods in particular situations make a considerable contribution in fieldwork methodology. This will help answer many questions, especially those that deal with the sensory experience and a push for visual anthropology. Anthropology will not be the only field to benefit from such research. Content analysis and the application of utilizing semiotics to understand visual symbols and representations may further critical research and look at new avenues in conducting analytical work. The greatest contribution, I believe, is the action of doing fieldwork in Baltimore, thus opening up more room for anthropologists and cultural studies scholars to carry out fieldwork in the inner city.