An Innovator Identifies an Alarming Trend for Young People: Listening to Rap Music Could Be Dangerous to Their Health

Denise Herd, PhD, received one of five $300,000 awards in 2000 from the RWJF Innovators Combating Substance Abuse national program

    • May 2, 2008

The Problem: Rap artists serve as trend-setters and role models for many young people, especially African Americans, making rap music an important form of popular culture. Anecdotally, many stakeholders believe that rap music has increasingly glamorized drugs, drug use and unhealthy lifestyles.

Grantee Perspective: Denise Herd, PhD, used her medical anthropologist background and rigorous quantitative methods to explore the hypothesis that rap music has increasingly glamorized the use of illegal drugs by associating drug use with wealth and high social standing.

“As a medical anthropologist, I am interested in the relationship between cultural beliefs, specifically looking at multicultural differences, and health behavior and health status. If rap music is what young blacks are listening to, we need to understand what messages are in the music,” she says. “They are getting a lot of their ideas about appropriate social behavior and health behavior from this music.”

Herd and her research team analyzed rap music lyrics of 341 songs, selected by popularity, from 1979 to 1997. They recorded the number of mentions of drug references such as snorting or injecting, selling drugs, drug paraphernalia and altered states of being. She then rated the attitudes towards drugs expressed in the songs as positive if they articulated enjoyment, sexual prowess, high social status or creativity; neutral; ambivalent; or negative if they expressed adverse health consequences, legal problems or drug addiction. She found a six-fold increase in the number of songs with drug references over the period studied: 69 percent of the songs from 1994–97 mentioned drugs compared to 11 percent from 1979–84. Some 58 percent of songs with drug mentions from the most recent three-year period examined expressed a positive attitude toward drugs.

“It is a complex issue with probably more than one explanation why there has been such a dramatic increase in songs mentioning drugs,” says Herd. “The earlier trend for rap music was to have an anti-drug song, message rap,” she says, with the lyrics drawing on the personal experience of rappers and drug addiction in their families; protesting the devastation drugs wrought in the community. “But when a rap group realized that their music became successful when they mentioned marijuana use, it became a trend. When something has a lot of commercial success, it gets repeated over and over. Commercialization of the music seems to be at least partially responsible for the increase in drugs being mentioned.”

Herd's paper, “Changes in Drug Use Prevalence in Rap Music Songs, 1979–1997,” received wide media coverage when it was published this April in Addiction Research and Theory. She hopes that is just the beginning of a greater awareness of rap music content, and that her research is “giving people something concrete to work with.”

When she was on a radio show in Chicago after the paper appeared, she says “people called in and said ‘yes, we remember when rap was different.' I have documented the shift. I want to call attention to what is being promoted over the airwaves every day—and it is not positive.”

A number of actions can be taken to counter the negative messages in rap music, according to Herd. “Many adults don't really listen to or understand the music. Parents need to be aware that rap music has a lot of appeal and is very compelling to very young children. They need to spend time with their children and monitor their media use—to the extent they can.”

“There also is a societal responsibility here,” says Herd. “Parents are not responsible for what goes on the airwaves, so regulatory bodies also need to be involved. The industry needs to make sure more constructive messages are coming out of the music.

“The glamorization of drugs and alcohol is part of the appeal for kids with few resources,” says Herd. “They idealize having a career as a rapper or idealize the lifestyle of drug dealers. They need some alternatives—solid education opportunities, solid job opportunities, solid recreation opportunities—to make [those other routes] less appealing.”

“Early rap was helpful for black communities, and it is possible to have rap music send out many more positive messages,” says Herd.

Next on her research agenda, Herd is examining the level of violence in rap music. She also would like to study the impact of rap music on listeners and their levels of substance use.

Herd received one of five $300,000 awards in 2000 from the RWJF Innovators Combating Substance Abuse national program. She calls the award invaluable. “I had the freedom to work on a topic that might not be funded through some of the traditional channels that fund health-related research. Because it was a distinguished prize, it spotlighted the importance of the work—and helped elevate and legitimize the research for universities.”

RWJF Perspective: “Denise Herd is a great example of an Innovator,” says Michelle Larkin, RN, MS, JD, RWJF senior program officer. “She was recognized for the contribution she made to the field and then used the grant award to do some innovative work that sparked a tremendous amount of discussion and changed our thinking about societal influences on substance use.”

The Innovators program recognizes leaders within the field of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs and provides them with funding to do inventive projects. In addition to traditional substance abuse researchers, other Innovators include a clean-air advocate, a trauma physician, an epidemiologist, a lawyer and an artist.

“We wanted to provide grant money so that these leaders could continue to be creative and carve new paths that would advance the field and reduce the burden of substance use and abuse on this country,” says Larkin.

The program closes in 2008 as the final round of Innovators complete their projects. “We continue to actively work to disseminate lessons that emerged from our work in addiction prevention and treatment,” Larkin says. “The people who were selected as Innovators for their commitment and contributions to the field of addiction prevention and treatment deserved to be recognized; it was a way to say ‘thank you for doing groundbreaking work' and to give them the flexibility to continue to forge new paths.

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