About the Author
This article was written last spring, just as the world was falling apart. Sequestered at home with my eyes glued to the news, I witnessed the BLM protests and sudden re-ignition of activism after the death of George Floyd. I felt powerless. Writing seemed the most substantial way to feed this renascent wave. I graduated from Dawson College in the Health Science program in winter 2020. Now, I am studying Microbiology & Immunology at McGill. To this day, this article is one of my greatest accomplishments.
A Song A Day Gets Drugs in Your Way: The Influence of Rap Music on Teens Today
By Idia Boncheva
For Nonfiction Writing, with Prof. Jeffrey Gandell
Every year, my family and our friends rent a cabin in the woods for a weekend, usually right before the start of school in September. We hike, play pool, cook and eat marshmallows around the fire at night. It’s terrifyingly utopic. One afternoon, we were all sitting on the balcony, and I was assigned the role of DJ. I grabbed my speakers, selected my new favourite playlist –RapCaviar; and pressed play. I looked around, seeking someone tapping to the beat or nodding their heads along with the melody. But instead, I heard my dad curse away at the song. Suddenly, an argument sparked between two fronts: on one side there was me, my cousins and my friends defending hip-hop, and on the other side, our parents, aunts and uncles reminiscing over the allegedly superior music of their youth. The next 10 minutes cracked our charming weekend. We moved on to dinner and forgot about the argument we had. But one question still lingered: why were our parents so resistant to rap and hip-hop?
In 2015, Geraldo Rivera claimed that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years” (HuffPost Live). His radical statement shocked artists and audiences in the rap community. Racism justifies police brutality, mass incarceration, slavery and cultural appropriation. So, how could music be more harmful than racial discrimination? The lyrics “and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ ” of Kendrick Lamar’s song Alright was targeted by Rivera who argued that rap music is “the worst role model” because it sends messages that alienate minorities (HuffPost Live). Although the reoccurring theme, in rap music, of police-hatred can be counterproductive in the pursuit of equality, Kendrick Lamar’s song also sends a message of hope for minorities who live in fear of being unjustly and violently arrested by authorities. In fact, “many hip-hop artists, scholars, and fans argue that rap music has been unfairly scapegoated: Lyrics have been taken out of context, the use of parody misinterpreted, and the prosocial and critical social commentary ignored” (Diamond et al. 279). Over the years, rap was blamed for certain ‘deviant’ behaviour such as drug consumption among young people. However, it is still unclear if those accusations are valid. Debates about the role of pop culture, including music, in our society, are characterized by two polarizing opinions: those who believe that entertainment shapes our social reality, and those who consider that it is a reflection of our society and our desires (Diamond et al. 270). In the context of drug use, it is still not understood whether music influences teenagers to take illicit substances, or if music repeatedly mentions drugs because those messages connect with the audience.
Adolescence is often characterized by making friends, having fun, hating school, developing your identity and, most importantly, arguing with your parents. A possible theory for the disconnect between teens and adults is that their decision-making process is significantly different. The human brain’s prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our rational thinking isn’t fully developed until the age of 25 (URMC). Adults make decisions with better judgement and awareness of long-term consequences because they assess situations using their prefrontal cortex (URMC). Teens use their amygdala; the headquarter of our emotions (URMC). Even if it pains most of us to say it, parents often know better. Teens’ brains also adapt quicker to repeated drug use, which increases their chances of developing an addiction (URMC). Despite that, marijuana and alcohol are generally perceived as harmless by young people. A survey conducted in 2013 assessed why teens used marijuana: to deal with problems at home, to relieve stress from school, to mollify boredom, to fit in with friends, to experiment, relax, feel good, have fun (Matt)… The justifications provided by teenagers vary significantly, so why would we ever think there is one common denominator to the cause of drug use?
Music is a sort of gravitational force; there is no denying it affects us. Every day, teens spend on average two and a half hours listening to music (Parker-Pope). And by far, the most listened to genre is rap. When interviewed, 65% of high school teens reported listening to rap in the previous day, which is more than twice the percentage for any other type of music (Diamond et al. 271). Whether we are biting our nails in the library over our next deadline or jumping around in a sauna-like living room at a party, rap is at the top of our playlist. Music enhances feelings, comforts you, resurrects distant memories; it’s an emotional channeling tool. We are musical beings. We remember better with melodies (Heidi). There’s a reason why the alphabet is a song. It is reported that 72% of teenagers believe music influences how they feel, at least in some way, and frankly, I’m surprised the number is so low (Diamond et al. 275-276). However, only 4% of these same adolescents established a correlation between the music they listen to and their occasional erring (Diamond et al. 276). Perhaps we refuse to believe our primary pastime can negatively affect us. Perhaps it simply doesn’t.
Between 1996 and 1997, 98% of movies depicted alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs. In that same time frame, only 27% of songs released featured such substances (Diamond et al. 277). In movies, black characters are depicted consuming illicit substances at a disproportionally high rate compared to white characters, even though studies have repeatedly shown that drug use is more frequent in white and hispanic groups (Diamond et al. 277). White teenagers are also the racial group with the highest rate of rap consumption. All of these facts indicated that there must be a racial component to the bad reputation rap carries. Blaming teen’s unlawful conduct on rap can be viewed as an attack on people of colour. Hip-hop is widely dominated by African Americans, so claiming that this music genre promotes narcotics implies that this historically marginalized community is to blame for the peak in drug consumption. Considering that rap is one of the few industries in which minorities without a formal higher education have a voice, discrediting their work and blaming the deviant attitude of their main audience is reductive for the artists.
Pop culture seems to always be haunted by a veil by disapproval. There are writings from Plato, in Ancient Greece, which expressed his worry regarding the violence in Greek tragedies and legends (Nehmas). He believed they harmed children (Nehmas). Aristotle disagreed (Nehmas). And today, Greek mythology is an important field of historical study. More recently, in 1985, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, two social issues advocates, founded the Parents Music Resource Center (The New York Times). The organization’s goal was to isolate ‘racy’ and suggestive music they deemed inappropriate for children and teens (The New York Times). They suggested the addition of a warning label on music albums so that parents were aware of what their kids were listening to (The New York Times). They created the Filthy Fifteen, a list of rock songs that mentioned or alluded to sex, violence, drugs, alcohol or occult sciences (The New York Times). They believed rock music was responsible for certain delinquent juvenile behaviours. They blamed the rise of teen pregnancies at that time on this genre… Not on the abstinence-only sex education program. Before pointing the finger at rock, they reprehended comic books. According to Karen Sternheimer, a popular culture academic, neither the comics books of the 50s nor the rock music in the 80s had the impact critics claimed they did (The New York Times).
My point is that there always seems to be a new element of popular culture that is held responsible for teen’s inappropriate—and sometimes unlawful—behaviour. Today, our parents praise the rock bands of their time. Probably, when we become parents, we’ll wrongfully condemn what our kids are listening to. It’s a never-ending cycle. Because it’s really difficult to determine the causes of various social issues, such as the consumption of drugs and alcohol by adolescents, we often chose the simple route and badger at the newest entertainment media or music genre. Whose turn will it be next?
Diamond Sarah, et al. “What’s the Rap About Ecstasy? Popular Music Lyrics and Drug Trends Among American Youth”. Journal of Adolescent Research, vol. 21, no. 3, May 2006, pp. 269-298.
“Geraldo Rivera: Hip-Hop Has Done More Damage To Black People Than Racism”, Youtube, uploaded by HuffPost Live, 19 feb 2015,
Gonzales, Matt. “Teen Drug and Alcohol Abuse”. Drug Rehab, https://www.drugrehab.com/teens/.
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”, To Pimp a Butterfly, produced by Sounwave & Pharrell Williams, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015.
Mitchell, Heidi. “Why Does Music Aid in Memorization?”, The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 2013.
Nehmas, Alexander. “Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours.” The New York Times, 2010,
The New York Times. “Sex, Drugs and Gore/Retro Report”, 2015,
“Understanding the Teen Brain”. University of Rochester Medical Center – Health Encyclopedia,