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.
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
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.