Hip-hop is a platform where African American children, adolescents, and young adults have come to create an identity and establish a social conscious look into how concepts such as institutional racism, poverty, and power dynamics influence their lives and the great African American perspective. This study specifically looks at how concepts of institutional racism, power dynamics, and personal epistemology are expressed through rap lyrics and how it is represented through experience and expression. This exploratory qualitative single case study utilizes a narrative inquiry approach to explore the role of rap lyrics for one African American male and his counter-stories during a semi-structured interview based on a preliminary analysis of his self-authored lyrics. This study has implications for ways to utilize arts in the schools to influence African American male development, academic success, and achievement.
By the end of the case, students should be able to
- Demonstrate an understanding of critical race theory and the use of counter-stories in research with marginalized populations
- Demonstrate an understanding of historical documents and how it can be used to inform the research process
- Demonstrate the complexity of narrative inquiry research and the value of incorporating a variety of methods (e.g. historical documents and interviews)
- Design a study that incorporates historical methodologies in research studies involving marginalized populations
- Create an interview guide that aligns with research questions
Daniel Solorzano and Tara Yosso, two of the most prominent critical race theorists, describe the counter-story as a look into how cultures of color can challenge dominant stories by providing an individual perspective about one’s own perceptions through their experiences of race and racism. The issue with some research is that they reinforce the majoritarian narrative (i.e. a one-size fits all approach) of racial privilege. For example, educational researchers often paint African American students as being the “other” in society by comparing them to the “norm” scores of White students (Love, 2004). By doing this, educational research is reinforcing the majoritarian narrative by maintaining the power and privilege of the dominant group in society. Conversely, capturing counter-stories that magnify minority experiences of race and racism can bring a voice to reality that is currently silenced. One way that seems particularly salient as a means of navigating to this depth is through narrative inquiry. A narrative inquiry methodology allows for the organization of personal objects/events and generates meaning in context that can explain interactions between people or groups that can later be applicable for comparisons within and across groups. In this methodological case study, we use historical documents (i.e. self-authored song lyrics) and interviews to explore an individual’s counter-stories. Daniel Solorzano and Tara Yosso define the counter-story as a methodology whose aim is to “expose, challenge, and analyze” majoritarian privilege. Using self-authored rap lyrics can act as a catalyst to identify what has been said, albeit, not publicly. The words from an individual’s lyrics can prompt effective probing interview discourse about the meanings of the experiences. Consequently, a new and evolving understanding of the counter-story can begin to emerge from written and spoken expressions. The purpose of this research was to use historical documents and narrative inquiry discourse to think critically about the emergent counter-stories as a way to demonstrate an alternative perspective that captures how African American males might use their creativity in the arts (e.g. music) to negotiate race, class, gender, and sexuality.
It is important to first consider the theoretical basis for your research inquiry prior to beginning the research and design phases of your investigation. Theories are a set of principles or ideas that attempt to explain how things occur. Think of a theory as your reason for doing your research. For this study, we chose the theoretical framework of critical race theory and post-structuralism. Critical race theory explores the impact of race and racism on the oppression of minority populations. Created from the works of theorists such as Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Gloria Ladson-Billings, critical race theory rests on five important tenants: (1) the centrality and intersectionality of race and racism, (2) the challenge to dominant ideology, (3) the commitment to social justice, (4) the centrality of experiential knowledge, and (5) the interdisciplinary perspective.
Critical race theory acknowledges that race and racism are a permanent part of society. According to critical race theorists, racism occurs at the institutional and individual form, it can be conscious or unconscious, and it can have an impact on an individual or a group. Critical legal scholars and critical race theorists posit that the judicial system can play a significant role in terms of the impact that race has on the prejudices of society. Critical race theory also serves to challenge the dominant ideology by providing counter-stories of racial injustice, power differentials, and privilege. For example, Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso used focus groups to access counter-stories that allowed them to explore the presence of racial micro-aggression experienced on a college campus. Critical race theorists challenge the normative ideology through illustration of differences among the races when it comes to psychological, psychosocial, educational, and policy. For example, Barbara Love discusses how the normative ideology of low academic achievement can impact African American, White, middle class, and male students.
Critical race theory utilizes various methodologies that emphasize personal experience (e.g. counter-storytelling and personal narratives). Furthermore, critical race theory promotes the belief that we live in a “racialized society” and rests on a commitment to social justice. Trends in the current literature use critical race theory as a way to raise awareness about racism in various contexts in an effort to reduce racism and “racial subordination.” Finally, critical race theory emphasizes an interdisciplinary perspective by using a multidisciplinary approach to analyze race and racism in different contexts. For instance, research on the role of race and racism has spanned education, mental health, and policy.
In addition to the tenets of critical race theory, Michel Foucault who comes from a post-structural perspective argues that power is a “multiplicity of force relations” in that it plays a role in the construction of a lived experience through social and cultural relations and practices (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). Foucault believed that power is not an institution, but a situation in society in that each individual as well as their social and cultural practices are the result of how power is negotiated through relations with others (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). Consider the conduct of students in a classroom environment, for instance, participating in activities, completing homework, and their body language/mannerisms. These are all individual characteristics that lend themselves to our unique position in the world and how we negotiate experiences and relationships. In order to understand the impact of knowledge and power, Lisa Jackson and Alecia Mazzei believed that systems of power are informed through knowing the origin and form of complex power structures. According to Lisa Jackson and Alecia Mazzei (2012), power is mapped by locating the manifestations of power within current practices and social situations (p. 59). Critical race theory and Foucault’s contributions of power knowledge have given researchers an under-utilized space to explore and understand how power relations can impact knowledge, particularly in marginalized populations.
In order to fully understand the power/knowledge that is generated in marginalized populations, it is necessary to examine the discourse that lay beneath the counter-stories. In other words, it is important to understand the message or emotion embraced by an individual abased on consistent word choice. For example, rap songs frequently use the term “feds” to refer to law enforcement or people who hold a position of power. Foucault believed that an individual’s subjectivities are shaped by interactions with various social structures which are situated within discourse. Therefore, understanding the discourses that are embedded within the thoughts, ideas, and words of historical documents written by African American youth, we might gain insights about their power/knowledge structure, their negotiation of power structures, and the construction of their subjectivities surrounding those structures.
Once a theoretical framework is in place, it is time to consider the rationale for wanting to explore the particular topic (i.e. concept), individual, or group. Providing a rationale for your research provides a space to look at previous research in context. The rationale for your research allows you to identify the justification and warrant necessary for giving your study the foundation and support within the context of the existing literature. It is often referred to as being grounded in the literature and a way to identify your research as noteworthy and worthwhile.
Based on the theoretical frameworks of critical race theory and using Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge, this study looked at how power structures, race, and racism in American society impact African Americans. The education system is a power structure that can play a big role in the lives of African American youth. Especially given that the American educational system claims to a fair and equitable education to all citizens, yet the policies, procedures, and discourses that underlie this system can be argued. According to Daniel Solorzano and Tara Yosso (2002), the education system reinforces a majoritarian narrative which indicates that racism justifies the use of a grand “majoritarian” narrative that is strengthened by unacknowledged white privilege. Therefore, majoritarian narratives illuminate stories about the low educational achievement and attainment of minority students versus the privileges of White, middle/upper class, heterosexual males. Barbara Love, an educational critical race theorist, argued that normative points of reference (i.e. majoritarian stories) are considered exemplars constructed by dominant groups to justify actions, and have emerged and accepted as the norm.
Research in educational psychology often focuses on theories and concepts, such as, motivation, academic achievement, and performance of students. For African American students, educational research has too often painted the picture that they are performing at a level that is lower than their White counterparts. Statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) in 2012 reported that African Americans are performing on average 25 points lower in areas of math and 22 points lower in the area of reading and language arts. While these statistics are discouraging, we may need to consider how future research can move away from practices that support a majoritarian approach. For instance, educational statistics are often based on a comparison to the “norm” scores of White students, which by comparison can misrepresent African American students as being the “other” in society.
According to Barbara Love, majoritarian stories, educational structures portray White American’s understanding of reality as the truth by making them institutional policies and procedures. Majoritarian stories achieve this through tools such as invisibility and normativity. For example, when discussing the achievement gap between White and African American students, researchers may fail to discuss the achievement gap that is present between White and Asian students, where the White students are viewed as the inferior “other.” It is important to note that often culture is used to describe the differences in student achievement; however, culture and background are typically not taken into consideration. For instance, the educational system wants to be viewed as being “neutral and apolitical”; however, policy continues to require schools to produce results about achievement and attrition outcomes based on race. The current research and the methodological theory aim to move in a direction that counters the majoritarian narratives seen in some educational statistics and research, and brings attention to the cultural voices and experiences of an individual. Understanding student’s knowledge and the negotiations of power structure in education using counter-story techniques can only contribute to shining the light on the current state of social, political, and cultural unrest and perseverance.
In the African American community, art is a large part of the culture, including dance, poetry, and music as a way of self-expression to communicate hidden messages of resistance and social change with evidence of racialized injustices.
Recently, educational research has embraced hip-hop lifestyles as a way to teach African American students’ critical thinking, language arts, and social consciousness. It is through the eyes of some African American youth and others who ascribe to a hip-hop lifestyle, and embrace rap music that a whole new understanding of the world is being cultivated and emergent. For example, rappers must be able to rhyme, use symbolism, utilize metaphorical terms, and tell stories. Each of these elements is significantly related to the English terms that are currently being taught in school. In addition, rap music provides an insight into social issues that are relevant to student’s lives. Educators have turned to using hip-hop lyrics to facilitate discussion about societal problems and create a critical consciousness about being Black in American society. It is with this developmental trajectory that warrants a deeper understanding of the role that hip-hop can play in development and learning. In the lives of the young African Americans, hip-hop is a way of knowing (i.e. epistemology).
Research questions can develop in various ways. There might be a driving research question from the beginning. Maybe it begins as an idea, then after some review of the literature, you identify a gap, and a research questions begins to formulate. Regardless of how your research questions are formulated, it is important that the research question(s) align with the theoretical framework and rationale on the front end of your research. Likewise, the research question(s) must align with your method and measurement. That is, the approach you use must support the research question(s) while the data you collect need to indeed assist you in answering your research question(s).
The purpose of the current research was to avoid a majoritarian perspective while aiming to understand the role of hip-hop in the lives of African American men. Our research questions tap the overall impact of power, racism, and privilege to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. As an individual develops within their culture and environment (e.g. family and peers), they encounter new skills, ideas, and information that may impact how they approach a new task, the learning process, or their belief about knowledge and knowing. Therefore, this qualitative study seeks to use self-authored song lyrics and counter-stories to understand how hip-hop music may be utilized by African American men and how it impacts their view of the world and guides their perceptions, interactions, and experiences by answering the following questions:
- What role does hip-hop play in the lives of African American men and how is it expressed in rap lyrics?
- What role does hip-hop play in the cognitive, social, and emotional development of African American men and how is it expressed in their rap lyrics?
- How do issues of institutional racism impact the lives of African American men and how are they expressed in their rap lyrics?
- How do issues of racial privilege impact the lives of African American men and how are they expressed in their rap lyrics?
This qualitative case study utilizes narrative inquiry methodology to understand the experiences of African American men. Narrative inquiry focuses on the lived experience of their participants. Narrative inquiry creates a space in which stories are told and discussed in a manner which creates meaning in the lives of others and their community. D. Jean Clandinin believes that an individual’s experience is “an experience that was storied both in the living and telling and that could be studied by listening, observing, living alongside, writing and interpreting texts” (p. 46).
Critical race theory and narrative inquiry are complimentary as we aim to capture an African American male’s experiential knowledge through counter-story telling in relationship to his self-authored rap lyrics as a way of knowing.
The majority of the study took place in the small apartment of the participant. He resides in a small, suburban town in Mississippi; the closest urban city is approximately 2 miles. The community is a predominately African American, mixed income city with the majority of its African American residents living in the low-income neighborhoods.
Dre (pseudonym) is a 24-year-old, African American male; he spent the majority of his life in suburban environments. Throughout school, he was considered gifted, participating in his school’s gifted program and receiving exceptional grades. However, when he reached high school, his grades slipped below average, and his motivation to do well in school rapidly deteriorated. Dre dropped out of college after 1 year and has been working several minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. Dre is often characterized as the “shy and quiet” type when around strangers, but when he is around his friends (or boys as he would say), he is characterized as full of fun, energy, and sarcastic humor. At the same time, he can be mean and nonchalant. He enjoys being alone stating that he “lives life as if it’s only me.” In his spare time, he writes poetry and music as an outlet. He has been writing since he was 12 years old as a way to channel his experiences and emotions in positive ways forms of expression.
I was introduced to Dre by a mutual friend who is a rapper and writer too. Given my interest in knowledge and meaning making of diverse populations, and the educational and societal implications, I ask Dre about his willingness to discuss his song writing with me for research purposes. Dre was immediately eager and willing to participate in this research project. Following Dre and our mutual friend around afforded me ways to elaborate on my initial research agenda and guided this research.
This research used historical documents and in-depth individual interview. Historical documents are any artifact that the participant has prior to the start of the study. In this case, we preliminarily analyzed self-authored rap lyrics. The preliminary analysis guided us through creating the interview protocol. Without the initial snapshot provided through the lyrics, we would not have had our unique and individualized coding scheme driving the interview and the analysis of the interview. It was through his lyrics that we were able to learn about our participant, and it was through the interview that we came to know and understand his experience through counter-story.
Our participant was forthcoming with previous song lyrics he had written; therefore, access to the documents was readily available. Dre provided 10 rap lyrics that he had written (see sample Figure 1). In order to gain insights about our participant’s background, experiences, and his expressions, we utilized the lyrics as an initial way to preliminarily analyze the archival data, using a process of open coding by grounded theorists Anslem Strauss and Juliet Corbin. The researchers completed our own open coding on each of the lyrics and later we came together in a 4-h meeting to conduct interrater reliability. Initially, we had 95% agreement on the initial coding; then after in-depth discussion about our interpretation of the underlying meanings and tone of the lyrics, we were able to come to 100% agreement. We were able to generate a list of common ideas and experiences (i.e. codes) resulting in a list of 46 codes (see Figure 2). Later, this list of codes is where we began our analysis of the each interview.
In the meantime, we conducted additional preliminary analysis to begin to conceptualize the emphasis and flow for the individual interviews. Anslem Strauss and Juliet Corbin call this next step axial coding. This is a process in which the individual codes are collapsed into slightly broader categories with similar or connected ideas, language, and/or tone in order to reduce the data. Our purpose here was to acquire the emphasis and scope for each subsequent interview. Our preliminary analysis of the lyrics was important because we used these initial impressions (i.e. categories) to generate topics for the individual interview guide. Figure 3 shows the full list of the reoccurring and dominant topics from our open coding. The categories assumed all of the codes from our original coding; if they are not explicitly identified in the category group, it is because they were not equally representative or were too similar to another code. To avoid redundancy and narrow in on critical areas we thought were central to our research questions, these codes were dropped in relationship to the interview guide. We then used the overall categories to inform two individual interviews.
Two semi-structured interviews were conducted using the interview guide. The semi-structured interviews were face-to-face, and each lasted 75-90 min. The interviews considered of several open-ended questions that flowed from broad to more narrow. Frequently during this type of interview, the researcher will need to pose probing questions based on the participant’s responses. For example, when asked the question “what motivates you,” the researcher may have to ask a probing question such as “how does God motivate you” in an effort to get a more in-depth and specific response. Generally, these probes are not in the interview guide but are essential because they take the interview to a deeper richer place of understanding the participant’s views and stories. It is not uncommon for a participant to take the researcher into an unforeseen direction. Although this study was focused on critical race (i.e. acquiring racial counter-stories), the participant gave deep insight into his psyche with stories of death and coping. You can make a note during the interview and insert the question immediately following the interview. Otherwise, your interview guide and the interview transcripts may not be well aligned.
Prior to embarking on the actual interview, we recommend piloting some of the questions with other researchers or non-participants to make sure the underlying purpose of the questions is presented in a way that produces the intended type of response. For example, in our case, we piloted the question “What does hip-hop mean to you?” on other musical African American males to see how they would respond. It ended up that piloting this question was a great idea because it was apparent that the responses from the non-participants (when the questions was phrased this way) was going to provide a generic and superficial response (which was not the goal). The insights from piloting the interview questions allowed for some pertinent revisions to the wording and ordering of the interview protocol.
Conducting face-to-face interviews allowed us to be able to observe overt behaviors and nonverbal activity. All interviews were digitally recorded and later transcribed for analysis. Each transcription was a type-written account of what our participant said, verbatim, in response to questions posed by the researcher.
Based on our preliminary open coding and interrater analysis (i.e. using two raters and coming to agreement on discrepant codes) of the rap lyrics, we were able to identify reoccurring topics, expressions, and language that assisted us in formulating specific questions for the individual interviews. Creating the questions for the interview protocol was an extremely important process because the appropriateness of the line of questioning would later serve four essential purposes:
- The questions needed to be relevant and meaningful for our participant in order to validate our interpretations of the rap lyrics and subsequent interrater discussion. This also refers to the dependability of our initial coding and interpretations.
- The appropriateness and effectiveness of the questions as well as the grouping of the initial open coding needed to make sense in a discourse manner to ensure a storytelling flow and cohesiveness to the interview.
- The questions needed to be constructed in a manner that allowed for continued richness and detail in the interview data. Maintaining a continued search for depth would assure acquiring counter-stories and demonstrate rigor to the interviews as the next layer of analysis.
- Interviews of a personal nature, as in this case with the rap lyrics, can be sensitive areas to navigate. Therefore, constructing interview questions that address the topic in a sensitive manner while continuing to build trust in the researcher–participant relationship was of particular importance.
For the purpose of this case, we are going to focus on one interview. For our first individual interview protocol, we selected the following codes from the rap lyric analysis: (1) motivation (Internal/External), (2) religion, (3) battle with self/world, (4) coping, (5) power, (6) reality versus fantasy, (7) collective epistemology, and (8) experiential knowledge. This category of codes we identified as a theme for the first interview was titled the battle of self-world and motivation. Some of the questions from our interview guide are as follows.
- what motivates you?
- how does God motivate you? Prompt a story.
- how does your mom motivate you? Prompt a story.
- how does the memory of your dad motivate you? Prompt a story.
- how do your boys/niggas/team motivate you? Prompt a story.
- everybody struggles with conflict in their 20s, especially in dealing with who we are and who we want to be. How do you see that conflict playing out for you?
These initial interview questions provided the researchers with some insight into the meaning and emotion embedded in the lyrics, and brought out some of the silent thoughts as the interview became increasingly closer to our participants’ inner dimensions. To answer our research questions, we conducted levels of analysis by Strauss and Corbin: (1) individual open coding, we used our code list from the lyrics; (2) interrater axial coding; and (3) selective coding overall themes (see Figure 4).
During the open coding, the researchers individually coded the interviews both inductively and deductively using codes derived from the lyrics and creating new codes absent from the lyrics; we added all new codes to our existing coding sheet. For example, Dre discussed several instances of isolation not identified in the coding of the lyrics; therefore, isolation was added to our codes. In the interview, he states, “I mean that’s just how I am sometimes, I just got to have … my space, me, Dre, just be around me. That’s just how I am.”
Axial coding consists of identifying relationships within the open coding list and condensing them into specific categories. For example, codes of God, church, and spirituality were all grouped under the category of religion because they all were referencing instances of faith, religious beliefs, or religious participation. Codes mentioning “knowledge” or “shaping my view” were grouped under epistemology because they all acknowledged the formation of knowledge and beliefs about knowledge.
Once we had agreed on the categorization of the codes, we looked critically and argued several instances of discourse and tone. To this end, we began to see emerging themes as information was plucked from the content and discourse. In synthesizing the overt and covert words and phrases from the stories, we were able to identify clear worldviews to reflect a broader meaning that could cut across diverse topics or experiences. For example, axial codes of money were selectively coded as external motivation because money was consistently mentioned as an external motivator for beliefs and actions. Figure 4 provides the trajectory from open coding to selective coding using examples from the interview.
Figure 4 illustrates the themes generated from this single case study: (1) Religion, (2) Experiential knowledge, and (3) Developing epistemologies. Following critical race principles, this study recognizes that racism is a permanent and endemic part of society and seeks to shed light on the impact of racism and privilege on the lives of African American men. This study demonstrates consistency with the ideology of power/knowledge that each individual and their social and cultural practices are the result of how power is negotiated through relations with others and the knowledge they obtain through it. Considering that power is an institution that is constructed through relations with others, our study is consistent with the lectures of Foucault, through power relations and the practice of power that knowledge emerges. For example, in both the rap lyrics and in the interviews, Dre discussed how being in a position of power determines people’s beliefs about you. He is quoted in saying
[there is] power with the government, like the police officers said you did something, what can you do? I feel like they are going to believe who they want to believe and they are going to believe the police officer, whether I did or didn’t.
In addition to Foucault’s idea of power/knowledge, theorists Alecia Jackson and Lisa Mazzei believe knowledge is something produced by the subject and is used to “destabilize what seems to be fixed thoughts and foundational knowledge” (p. 61). For example, Dre mentions in his interviews that
Everybody has a piece of knowledge to give I’ve learned so much from so many people … I’ve met a lot of different people and learned a lot of different things. Some positive some negative but it all kinda like I said earlier helps shape my view of life.
The post-structuralist view on language posits that language provides an entry into how social structures define and shape our subjectivities, identities, and social practices. However, we would be a miss not to mention that a post-structualist perspective can create complexities because some could argue that it might try to pigeon-hole the essence of knowledge or lend too much interpretation. When investigating the rap lyrics, it is possible to see how these social structures shape Dre’s subjectivities. He is quoted in saying “so many crooked cops, what can a n**** like me do? City PD ain’t no better, they don’t give a f*** either to protect and serve, but to me, it don’t look like neither.” Therefore, understanding the discourses that populate hip-hop will provide insight into their power/knowledge structure, their negotiation of power structures and misogyny, and the construction of their subjectivities surrounding those structures. Hip-hop is the voice of the African American community that serves as a testimonial to the social problems that plague the black community.
The purpose of this case study was to illustrate how the researchers used historical documents to help inform the research process. Starting from the initial phase of having a theoretical foundation and rationale to the final phase of analysis and coding, the researchers explained how we came up with the idea of using archival rap lyrics, why we chose to use those archival rap lyrics, and how we used those lyrics to inform the interview guide and analysis. Using critical race theory and Foucault’s post-structuralism proved successful in our quest to understand how power relations and privilege impacted African American men and how that was expressed through hip-hop self-authored song lyrics.
It is through their eyes that hip-hop has meaning, and it is through this understanding they come to view the world, interact with others, and become members of society. It certainly seems warranted that hip-hop lifestyle is an effective way to teach African American students critical thinking, language arts, and social consciousness. By recognizing and showing that hip-hop is an important element of knowledge construction for African American men, we can help empower African American men while simultaneously creating culturally relevant pedagogies that are aimed at increasing academic performance of African American males.
- Why is it important to have a theory and rationale for your study?
- Identify a marginalized population you find interesting.
- What do you know about them?
- What do you want to know about them (i.e. research questions)?
- How might critical race theory apply to your population?
- What kind of information (i.e. data) can you collect to answer your questions?
- Does this fit with narrative inquiry? Why or Why not?
- How are historical documents useful in your research process?
- Find a lyric from your favorite music artist. Read through it critically; begin analyzing it in the following manner:
- Create a list of codes (i.e. open coding).
- Group the codes into categories (axial coding).
- Identify each category with a label that represents the nature of the category (selective coding).
- Select one of the categories that you labeled in 4c (above).
- Using the lyric from #4, think about how you might structure and organize an interview guide that would capture an individual’s counter-story.
- Create an interview guide based on your preliminary analysis of the song lyric.
- Find a friend or family member; have them complete the analysis for the same lyric (#4). You may have to explain what you want them to do; let them do it on their own. Afterward, talk about the similarity and differences of your analysis.
Developing and interview guide: http://www.qualres.org/HomeInte-3595.html
Open, Axial, and Selective coding: https://prpost.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/an-example-of-how-to-perform-open-coding-axial-coding-and-selective-coding/