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Studying a Hip Hop Nation: Pop culture phenomenon at the intersection of race, media and youth

I was born in the Bronx. I’m only about 20 years old. I’ve been known to cause controversy. I make billions of dollars a year, and I’m very, very popular. What am I?

Professor S. Craig Watkins researches interactions between youth, race, media and pop culture
Professor S. Craig Watkins researches interactions between youth, race, media and pop culture.

The answer is hip hop culture. Thirty years ago the phrase “hip hop” did not even exist, and today it’s an all-encompassing lifestyle that almost defies definition.

It’s the fashions worn by free-thinking young black males in downtown Houston, L.A. or Indianapolis. It’s the music of 50 Cent and the pioneering sounds of the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. It’s Afrika Bambaataa and the legacy of street-surviving kids in the Bronx in the early 1970s, before the hype. It’s spoken word and New York City subway graffiti and films like Menace II Society and Boyz N’ the Hood that shine an unsparing light on the collision of urban ghetto life and black youth. It’s African American activists, artists and business moguls like Russell Simmons who want to mobilize the hip hop generation into a political force to be reckoned with. It’s a walk and attitude and youthful, often rebellious, voice that resonates with high school students in Kansas as well as club-goers in Tokyo.

To its passionate adherents, both young and old, it’s an avenue for expression that didn’t exist before and a feeling that cannot be verbalized in anything near conventional terms.

In addition to all of this, it’s also a field of scholarly study. S. Craig Watkins, a professor of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film at The University of Texas at Austin, is among an emergent generation of young scholars who have begun to study a cultural revolution that has gained global ascendance in the past two decades.

Although Watkins would describe his research interests in broader terms than hip hop, his book “Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema” has rapidly transformed him into a hip hop pundit. Watkins’ name can be spotted in almost any forum—from the New York Times to international film symposiums—where race, media and pop culture are being addressed.

Hip hop fans on Sixth Street in Austin

“Hip hop is creating very interesting bridges across racial and ethnic communities,” says Watkins. “I want to look at how hip hop culture is reflective of layers of social change – if you’re considering American culture in the last two decades of the 20th century, you have to look at hip hop.”

In his book, Watkins moves well beyond descriptions of hip hop’s popularity and pervasiveness to analyze the relationship between urban black youth, the media, politics and commerce.

“My primary interests have always been issues related to race, media and youth culture,” says Watkins. “Sociology is a place from which you can look at these things in relation to one another. Hip hop has become the most visible voice for black culture, and it’s definitely changing the broader social culture.”

Using analyses of the filmmaker Spike Lee and select ghettocentric movies as a crux, Watkins looks at how the media have treated representations of inner-city ghetto life and how black culture has dealt with the inconsistencies of hip hop’s commercial success alongside public and political disparagement of black youth. Although African American films of the past 20 years have risen to an unprecedented level of artistry and honesty, many of them also reinforce widespread, inaccurate, stereotypical perceptions of ghetto life.

Hip hop has become the most visible voice for black culture, and it's definitely changing the broader social culture

As the first post-civil rights movement generation, black youth who have come of age in the past 30 years have lived in a social climate free of legal segregation and have experienced greater financial prosperity than any generation of African Americans before them. Society’s reaction to their contributions and newfound voice has, however, been a study in contradictions.

According to Watkins, black youth often have been the unfortunate recipients of a conservative political and social backlash in which the achievements and goals of the civil rights struggle are sometimes thwarted. At the same time that their creative expression is used to market everything from $140 athletic shoes to candy bars and the NBA, they are also cast as the primary source of crime and the erosion of traditional values.

Hip hop fans Kenneth and Belinda on Sixth Street in Austin

“While black youth prominently figure in the war on drugs and in prison populations,” says Watkins, “they’re equally prominent in film, music, television, sports and advertising. All kinds of commercial industries use their creative expression to remain commercially viable. The negative baggage of things such as gangsta rap can overshadow the exuberance and freshness of these young people’s art.”

Conundrums like this capture Watkins’ imagination, and, although his book began as a study of the filmmaking practices of African Americans, he realized that larger, tougher, more complex questions also needed to be answered in the text—or at least pondered. What accounts for the global popularity of hip hop culture products such as rap? What has the “commodification of blackness” done to the black community? How do changes in the cultural marketplace create opportunities for black youth? When something new and novel like hip hop is discovered and quickly packaged, are the socially redeeming aspects of it diluted?

Some of the same basic questions about pop culture and youth that rest at the core of Watkins’ book are also the impetus for two new ventures he is undertaking. In addition to working on a book about the relationship among race, media and the commodification of black athleticism, Watkins is also starting a research project this spring in which he hopes to gather a copious amount of information about Texas teens’ interaction with a wide array of media.

Cody Chestnutt (right), who opened for the hip hop group Roots at Stubbs on Saturday (March 8), autogaphs a poster for Abraham Garcia, a junior in biology

“I like to use media as the primary site to explore what’s going on with young people—their values, attitudes and behaviors,” says Watkins. “And my current project involves examining Texas youth of different races and ethnicities to find out what kind of media culture they’re immersed in. I want to see how that shapes their behavior, lifestyle, self-esteem, mental health and attitudes toward their peers and society.”

In order to gauge the impact of media on Texas teens, Watkins will be assembling focus groups of 7th, 8th and 9th graders and asking them what media they access and how they use it. In addition to being sophisticated, avid consumers at a very young age, today’s youth also are extremely media savvy. Watkins notes that past research has not addressed the complicated tangle of choices teens have when it comes to media and how their use of the Internet, TV and print media may influence their well-being and their notions about race, gender and civic involvement, for example.

Which, in a way, brings one right back to hip hop. The media and the commercial world took a cultural seed from New York and spread it across the nation. Youth of different races and ethnicities are using the common ground of hip hop to interact in a more seamless fashion than their grandparents ever would have envisioned. Mass media and clever marketing have made it a small world after all.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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