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Does Hip Hop Culture Influence Youth Gangs?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5491 words Published: 2nd Aug 2018

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Gang violence and the use of violent weapons have been highlighted by the media recently. The government have initiated aims in order to curb and deal with gang violence in the United Kingdom. In order deal with this issue, influencing factors have been acknowledged. This research explores the supposed influence that the hip hop culture has on young males engaged in gangs, and their willingness to use violent weapons. a systematic review of the literature and a qualitative content analysis of four songs lyrics have confirmed that there are themes which are consistent with the attitudes and behaviours that young people express due to the music they listen to.

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A significant proportion of the literature that surround young people and youth gangs in the UK focuses on possession and use of weapons (e.g. Bullock and Tilley, 2002; Bennett and Holloway, 2004b; Marshall et al, 2005). Research by Lemos (2004) found that some young people were likely to carry weapons through fear of being attacked by other gang members or more worryingly because they associated it with being cool. This was also reflected in Kinsella‟s (2011) report for the government, following the murder of her brother Ben during a knife attack in 2008. Through visiting several projects across the country, Kinsella found two prominent motivational factors that were highlighted in each project. Those were „fear‟ and „fashion‟. Some young people in the projects explained that they carried knives because they feared that others were also weapons, and so felt it necessary to carry knifes as a method of self-protection.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Youth gangs and the attitudes and behaviours of young males have been a major issue in the United Kingdom. Researches and theories have been conducted in order to evaluate the emergence of youth street gangs. The murders of innocent young people in the last decade have urged the government and academics to conduct reports and research on gang and post code gang feuds. Due to an increase of gang violence the government introduced the ‘Gang Injunction’ within the Police and Crime Act 2009. The ‘gang Injunction’ is aimed at preventing young people from engaging in, encouraging and assisting gang related violence (Home Office). Research from the Associations of Chief Police Officers (2007) and Pickle (2009) show that apart from gang members being involved in gangs, they are also engaging in the use and possession of violent weapons.

Hip hop artists have been criticised by politicians and the media for influencing young males to engage in violent behaviour. However this idea is not supported by research and can be rejected, because when looking at research from government reports and academics there is no evidence to support the idea that hip hop influencing young male’s behaviour and attitudes. However research from Kubrin (2005) and Miranda and Claes (2004) who are both Canadian and American, suggest that some of the themes in hip hop are reflected in the behaviour of young males. So therefore there is a relationship between hip hop and young males, but unfortunately this research has not been conducted in the United Kingdom.

In the response to the lack of research on the link between hip hop and youth gangs and violence, the aim of this study is to the answer the research question:

“Youth Gangs: Does the Hip Hop culture Influence Young Males in the UK to Join Street Gangs and the Use of Violent Weapons?”

In order to answer this research question and to find out whether there is a link between youth gangs and hip hop culture, this research will explore if the use and possession of violent weapons is really glamorised by hip hop, or whether the claims by the government and media are unjustified. The main aims in this research are to:

Find out if beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of young gang members can be attributed to the lifestyle portrayed by hip hop artists.

Establish where prominent behaviours in the literature, song lyrics and images of hip hop artists can be associated with the influence of violent weapons

Apply theory to the attitudes, behaviours and the prominent themes associated with gangs in order to provide a more holistic approach.

These aims will be conducted through a discussion of literature from books, journals, government reports, newspapers and media articles. A content analysis will be conducted on hip hop (Grime UK) song that young males may listen to, and a semiotic analysis on images of hip hop artists. Chapter 2 of this research provides a literature review looking into the problems with gang definition, the UK new gang culture, the background of gangs, gang membership, the possession and use of violent weapons and the hip hop culture and the influence of hip hop. Chapter 3 focuses on the methodology and outlines the approach that has been conducted during the research process. The research design and the analyses are included in this chapter, alongside the ethical considerations. Chapter 4 discusses and evaluates the analysis of the hip hop song lyrics, the signs that images from hip hop portray using a semiotic approach and then finally the themes that emerged from the literature and lyrics. These three themes are ‘drug dealing’, which is discussed in relation to rational choice theory, strain theory and differential association theory. The second theme is ‘street credibility’ and this is discussed in relation to social identity theory and masculine theories. The final theme is the ‘Territorial post code wars’, this theme is discussed in relation to social capital theory and social learning theory.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

This chapter will be exploring the literature surrounding young males, gangs, violence and weapons. As well as the influence the hip hop culture can have on these young males. Different literature such as books, journals, government reports, newspaper articles and research studies will be examined and reviewed in order to view the current state of gang culture and violence in the UK. The following issues will be discussed in order to examine relevant literature on the study. Gang definition, the UK gang culture, gang membership, and the background of gangs in general, the possession and use of violent weapons and finally the influence of hip hop culture on young people.

The problem with definition

The term ‘Gang’ has had some issues surrounding its definition, and this is a problem that remains dominant within the UK based literature. The definition of the term has been mainly developed with reference to American gang culture. Some theorists argued that a new definition of the term ‘gang’ should be given for the new gang culture in the UK. The reason behind some definitions given to describe the gang culture in America was investigated by Ball and Curry (1995) they believed that although it is easy to identify a gang, the real issue arises when attempting to create a definition. After engaging in a lengthy linguistic analysis of various ways to define gang, they proposed that “gang definitions would do better to focus on the abstract, formal characteristics of the phenomenon rather than connotative, normative content” (Ball & Curry, 1995:240).

Ball and Curry (1995) also stated that old definitions for the term are acceptable but due to the frequent changes in sociological, political and cultural changes it is important to have a new definition for the term, because the changes may affect the phenomenon of gang culture. Despite the need for a current definition, government and academic organisations believe that a fixed definition is essential in order to develop further research into gangs. For example the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) stated that it was difficult to determine the proportion of crime that contributed to gangs, because the agreed definition of gangs on the data base was non-existent (ACPO, 2007:14). The Metropolitan Police Service (2008) also identified several other factors that differentiate a gang from relatively small, unorganised and transient peer groups. These factors include names, an organisable structure, and the use of violence and delinquent behaviour to promote group identity and to acquire social capital (Metropolitan Police Service, 2007: 21)

The UK New Gang Culture

The media, government and professional academics have all raised their concerns about the growing perception of gang culture in the UK. The media frequently report criminal activity, and in response some academics have argued that the media sensationalises the gang problem in the UK (Alexander, 2008:4). Other academics such as Bullock and Tiley (2002) have also suggested that the need to understand and tackle the gang violence is more important instead of sectionalising gang violence. Following the media’s numerous reports regarding the increase in high profile gang related crimes since 2007, Heale (2008) stated that youth gangs have been frequently highlighted in the media. The fatal shooting of an innocent five year old girl in Stockwell in 2012, Is another incident that caught the media’s attention. Thusha Kamaleswaran was left permanently paralysed after a gang related shooting occurred at her aunts shop (Telegraph, 2012). The media suggested that the shooting was linked to youth gang violence; the metropolitan police gave a statement stating, “It is believed two black youths ran into the shop before shots were fired”. Peter Robbins who is the counsellor from Lambeth council also gave a statement, “there is a fairly well known problem with gangs and guns in Lambeth” (Daily Mail, 2012).

Gangs are not only running into shops and causing injury to innocent individuals, they are also engaging in the American style drive by shootings. For example, the Telegraph (2011) reported a drive by shooting in west London which injured three teenage girls and left one girl in critical condition. These shootings also attracted the media and public attention and the they believed that the American style drive by shootings performed by UK gangs where indeed becoming a lot more like the American gangs. Academics have criticised the media despite there being evidence of growing youth violence taking place in the UK, academics believe that the media solely focuses on the dramatic consequences of gang violence, instead of how it can be prevented and tackled (Fitch, 2009: 2).

Deuchar (2008) suggested that the majority of gang members tend to predominantly be from black or ethnic minority groups, despite this suggestion Bennett and Holloway (2004a: 319) found that the majority of gang members were white, followed by Caribbean and Bangladeshi. Due to this inconsistency in literature surrounding the race and ethnic minority of gang members, it is clear that the race and ethnicity of gang members is not an important factor in researching gangs. So therefore this study will not focus on race and ethnicity. Instead this study will focus on why young people join gangs and the characteristics of gang members.


Studies and research where conducted in order to give an insight into the increase of gang membership. Bennett and Holloway (2004a: 305) found evidence from governments reports, newspapers, local agencies and national bodies that suggested gangs in the UK and the number of gang members where increasing. Bennett and Holloway (2004a) argued that with the obvious increase in violent weapons and the possessions and the use of guns, the British gangs where not that different to the American stereotype that the UK often rejected. Research into gangs in America could not be generalised to the rising youth gang culture in Britain, despite the early research into gangs and youth groups. Subculture theorists in America have largely focused on the study of youth groups and gangs for almost over a century. Research into gangs in America mainly focused on the Chicago city, which is a research that has provided what is known as the first study into the gang culture phenomena. After the research in Chicago gang culture, subculture theorist Merton began his research into delinquent groups, with the help of Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1961). Merton’s (1938) research on the ‘Social structure and Anomie’ thesis anticipated that the American Dream was at the forefront of every individuals aspirations in life. But not every individual would be able to acquire this. For example education was only accessible to some people and this led to anomie. Also deviant behaviours such as violence and petty crimes amongst young working class males who were most affect were caused by the feeling of strain. Cohen (1955: 66) extended the concept of social structure and anomie by explaining that in order to explain non instrumental vandalism and violence was due to status frustration. He stated that the individuals who felt frustrated would, ‘gravitate towards one another to establish new norms and new criteria of status’, and this would then form a delinquent subculture. This statement was further extended by Cloward and Ohlin (1961:1), they believed that every individual had access to legitimate and illegitimate opportunities and suggested three types of subculture. The retreatist subculture which fails to find legitimate or illegitimate means in order to succeed, so therefore the individual turns to alcohol or drug abuse while the conflict subculture is when individuals use manipulation of violence as a way of winning status. The criminal subculture describes a group of individuals who rely on theft and extortion as a means of getting income. The subculture that is most relevant to this research on the young males and the influence of hip hop is the Conflict subculture.

Downes (1966) systematic review found no evidence that Cloward and Ohlin (1961) retreats, conflict and criminal subcultures existed in the UK because the young males lacked structured cohesion that the American gangs boasted about. Cohen (1955) notion of status frustration was criticised by Downes who believed that by Cohen conducting his research in only one borough meant that his findings may not be generalised to the rest of the UK. Despite this Downes concluded that the research into gang delinquency in the UK is a reflection of its absence (Downes, 1966:116). In addition to this Campbell et al (1989) believed that the gang notion belonged to America, whilst the subculture notion belonged to the UK. As a result of this Campbell et al (1982) felt that a separate definition and research for youth gangs in the UK would need to be developed in order to provide a better framework for future research into gangs Campbell et al, 1989: 276)

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Gang Membership

It is believed that young people especially males are known to join gang memberships for different psychological or social reasons (Bennett and Holloway, 2004a: 307). Some of the psychological reasons for young people joining gangs are believed to be because they have a desire for money, to gain status and respect from other gang members and the feeling of being protected and having a connection within the gang membership. Psychological reasons for young people joining gangs usually develop from lack of effective support from their parents, family, teachers and the police (Harris et al, 2001: 9). Sociological reasons have been heavily focused on in terms of explaining gang membership. Research by the NASUWT Teachers union (2008) found that if there is an absence or lack of positive role models in a young individual’s life, then in order to build a social identity they will look towards accessible role models. Also the study found that young people from broken families where a father figure was not present are more likely to look up to individuals in gangs or family members involved in gang memberships (NASUWT Teachers union, 2008: 11). Wood and Alleyne (2009) found evidence that gang membership gives young people a chance to acquire powerful status amongst their friends, opportunity for excitement especially if they live a boring life. Protection from other gang members and most importantly it offers social support that is lacking in young people’s lives from their family. Whereas Marshall et al (2005) suggests that the reason for young people engaging in gang membership is due to their exclusion and alienation from mainstream society, particularly education and employment. Whilst most theorists offer an explanation as to why young people join gangs, they have failed to outline the specific features and characteristics of gang members. Evidence from Bennett and Holloway (2004a) suggests that gang members tend to me male, involved in drug taking and supplying, more likely to carry weapons and are criminally active.

Possession and the violent use of weapons

There are various literatures that focus on youth gangs and the use of violent weapons amongst young people in the UK. Lemos (2004) report on ‘Fear and Fashion: The use of knives and other weapons by young people’ believed that most young people were more likely to carry violent weapons due to the fear of being attacked by other young individuals or just because they believed that carrying a violent weapon made them look cool. The home office affairs select committee published a knife crime report which investigated the levels and causes of knife crime and the attitudes of the offenders. Knife crime has been and still is a persistent and worrying concern that has a huge impact on young people in the UK. During June 2012 there were approximately 29,513 recorded offences involving knives and other sharp instruments, accounting for 7% of selected offences (Berman: Knife Crime Statistics, 2012).

In the UK more than 70 teenagers were violently killed by the use of violent weapons. Majority of these deaths were gang related violence’s. In 2008 gang and knife crime were regularly featured in the media headlines, these crimes were mapped out in various locations around the UK, but London suffered the highest number of crime amongst young people. Dr Bob Golding, who is a criminal justice lecturer at the university of Portsmouth, stated that “knife crime is simply a symptom; you have associated with this a development of gang culture” (Golding, BBC News: 2008). The possession and the use of violent weapons were also reflected in Brooke Kinsellas (2011) ‘Tackling Knife Crime Together’ report. Kinsella report was conducted following the death of her brother in a knife attack in 2008. The report also gave the public an insight into the seriousness of violent weapon crimes. Kinsella found that motivational factors influence young people into carrying violent weapons, these two factors were fear and fashion. In the report it was also discovered that youths reasons for carrying weapons was due to the fear of being attacked by other individuals, so therefore they felt the need to protect themselves. The reason that was more worrying was the need to be in possession of violent weapons because they believed it was fashionable or a cool thing to do (Kinsella, 2011: 2). Recently the media reported two incidents that allegedly occurred with five hours. The first incident was the shooting of a 19 year old male in Clapton, east London and the stabbing of a 16 year old male in Wandsworth, south west London. Although the police believe that these crimes where not linked to gangs, it just shows the frequent use of violent weapons within the community. (BBC, 2013)

Although it is difficult to determine the link between violent weapon crimes and gangs, recent research into gangs has noted the relationship between firearms and gangs (Squires et al, 2008). A research report was carried out by Bullock and Tilley (2002), they found that 60% of firearm crimes can be linked to gangs meanwhile; the Home Office 2009/2010 reported 5% increase of injuries as a result of firearms. In order for the government to tackle the possession and use of violent weapons, they need to establish the main reasons why young people engage in violent weapons. As this could enable them or it could be a starting point for them to limit gang violence.

The Hip Hop Culture and the Influence of Hip Hop

Hip hop today is known as a cultural reform and social reconstruction. Hip hop first developed in the drug infested gang streets of the Bronx in New York City. Apart from the glamorous and provocative nature of hip hop, it is mainly associated with and for freedom, peace, equality and social harmony. Alongside creating a successful industry hip hop also gave ethnic minorities in America a chance to voice their opinions internationally, a civil rights movement that is still relevant today. Price (2006:1) defines hip hop as “a liberation movement in the form of a diverse culture, it was a next generation civil (human) rights movement sparked by ostracized, marginalized and oppressed inner- city youths. Hip hop culture has grown to represent urban, rural, suburban and global communities of all ages, genders, religions and races”.

One main factor that is mainly held responsible for the increase in gang violence is the hip hop culture. It is believed that the hip hop has a negative influence on young people. David Blunkett reportedly made a statement about gang violence, stating “idiots like so solid crew are glorifying gun culture and violence”. This statement was made a year after one of the members from ‘So Solid Crew’ Ashley Walters was sentenced to 18 months for the possession of a firearm (Telegraph, Sally Pook: 2003). David Cameroon also voiced his opinions on violent music. In the British society (2006) he asked BBC radio station 1, “do you realise some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?”

Despite the perception that the hip hop culture glamorises gang and violence, there is very little research on this concept. United Kingdom based research has dismissed the concept that hip hop influences young males into gangs and violent weapon. Hallsworth and Silverstone (2009: 362) suggested that “style and music do not define the relationships between the individuals and the violence that they do, or the weapon they carry”. There is no empirical support for the statement; however they do believe that those who carry weapons tend to imitate the American hip hop style by carrying guns. Well-known hip hop artists spoke about the comparison between hip hop and the trend of violence amongst young people in the communities. 50 Cent who has recently turned to acting and has become an entrepreneur refuted claims of there being a connection between hip hop and gun violence. He stated in his interview that his music was more a reflection of his experiences in life, rather than a glorification of assault weapons (CBS News, 2013).

Hip hop and gangs have always been linked in some form. It is believed that the hip hop culture has created and influenced gang violence over the decades. Literature in the UK regarding the effect of hip hop music on young males and gangs on focuses on deviant behaviour in adolescence, whereas literature in the USA have a wider range of research and literature. Miranda and Claes (2009) researched the possible link between preference of rap music and deviant behaviours such as, drug use, violence and street gang involvement amongst French – Canadian adolescents. Miranda and Claes found that despite trying to control the adolescent deviancy, a significant link can still be found between rap music and deviant behaviour. However despite their finding they did not find a link between hip hop and street gang involvement. This shows that there needs to be future research in order to come to a conclusion as to whether or not there is an association between hip hop and gang violence (Miranda and Claes, 2009).

The issue of hip hop music lyrics and how they may have an effect on young people has been approached by Kubrins (2005) study. Kubrin conducted a content analysis of rap songs in America and also addressed the use of violent weapons suggesting that “the gun becomes a symbol of power and a remedy for disputes” (Kubrin, 2005:363). Research from Miranda, Claes and Kubrin, found that young people joined street gangs in order to acquire status and a social identity, which is seen and stated in the music they listen to. Because the majority of these studies are based on American and Canadian individuals, it is possible that the findings cannot be generalised to gangs in the UK.

Chapter 3: Methodology

This section will explain the methodological approach that this research has adopted in order to establish if the hip hop culture has an influence on youth gangs and the use of violent weapons in the UK. The method which was chosen for the purpose of this paper was desk research, sometimes known as secondary data or secondary research (Bryman, 2008). This research involves gathering data that already exists from internal sources, publications of governmental and non-governmental institutions, free access data from the internet, in articles, newspapers and other relevant sources (Bryman, 2008:…..). A systematic review of literature, a qualitative content analysis on four hip hop song lyrics, and a semiotic analysis on a hip hop image will be conducted in order to establish if a relationship between hip hop culture, youth gang and the use of violent weapons exists. At first a qualitative research was initially considered in order to gather data and in order to answer the research question. The majority of research in to gangs and the use of violent weapons are normally conducted through qualitative surveys and interviews with current or previous gang members and offenders. These types of primary research would be dangerous and difficult to replicate as an undergraduate student.

Research Design

The research design of this study discusses the literature in the form of a systematic review. Government reports, journal articles and published texts on gangs and the use of violent weapons from the last decade have all been reviewed. Secondary data has been used to conduct this study. The secondary data has been used with caution and all literature used are from trustworthy sources. Literature based research has its strengths, and they mainly fall on the fact that the research is able to analyse data that is already available because the time consuming research has already been conducted by academics. There will be no contact with current or previous offenders who have been involved in gangs or crimes involving violent weapons, so the potential harm and risk involved in this research is minimised. However as explained by Bryman, (2008) not conducting a primary research means that there will be no control over the variables and so it is acknowledged that the grounds may be different to the present study. therefore this research has been conducted carefully in order not to manipulate the literature to support the hypothesis of the present study By conducting a content analysis of hip hop song lyrics, this study will be able to establish whether the genre of music can be held responsible for the behaviour of youth gang members or whether claims by the media are false. Out of the four songs that have been analysed, two demonstrate how the hip hop culture can influence young males, particularly in regards to joining gangs and the use of violent weapons. The two other songs acknowledge social exclusion as a reason for delinquency. The Song lyrics where obtained from lyric databases such as, Metro lyrics, sweet lyrics, urban lyrics and AZ lyrics. Even though the validity and reliability of these lyrics are questionable, all the songs used are from official version on ‘YouTube’, a reliable video broadcasting website. Due to the fact that majority of the songs analysed are likely to contain words and languages that are likely to be difficult to understand, a slang website called ‘Urban Dictionary’ was used as a means to translate any difficult words.


Key themes have been highlighted in the literature articles through a process of thematic analysis during a systematic review. These themes include repetition, differences and similarities. The following analytical chapters will be discussing these themes in relation to theories in order to give a better understanding as to why young males may seek these identities. Firstly the song lyrics will be discussed in relation to the themes that have been highlighted through the thematic analysis. This will be done using a similar approach conducted by Kubrin (2005) study on ‘Gangstas, Thugs, and Hustlas’. Song lyrics will be discussed and the images will be discussed using a semiotic approach in order to evaluate whether or not the music that is marketed to youths encourages the use of violent weapons.

This will then be followed by a discussion of the themes in relation to the literature. Theory will be included in order to provide a more holistic understanding as to why young people join youth gangs, their behaviour and attitudes. In order to identify the themes within the literature a critical discussion of the findings will provide a foundation for recommendation on future research on this topic. By using these analytical methods a detailed account of the influence the hip hop culture has on young males can be generated from the literature.

Ethical Considerations

Due to this research being a secondary research, it does involve as many ethical issues as a primary research. For example no participants will be interviewed, so there is no need for informed consents and there are no issues regarding deception and invasion of privacy. Also there is no need to consider data protection or storage because the research studies reports are available and have been published for public viewing. The following ethical considerations from the British Society of Criminology (BSC) Code of Ethics have been considered and relate to this research. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there will be no contact with previous or current gang members so the emotional and physical well-being of the researcher will be maintained (BSC 3: iii). As the BSC states, researchers should ‘promote equal opportunity in all aspects of their professional work and actively seek to avoid discriminatory behaviour’ (BSC, 3: iv).Whilst doing this research every effort has been made not to address young male gang members in terms of age, and racial or ethnic group sensitively and to use non-biased language. Also this research has made every effort not to disrespect the views and beliefs of young gang members, as one of the aims for this dissertation is to focus on developing a theoretical and holistic understanding of the behaviour of gang members. Also the views and beliefs of the gang members have not been disrespected whilst conducting a systematic review of the literature and analysing the literature through the themes that developed in the content analysis, alongside the arguments for and against hip hop culture influencing violence, the use and possession of violent weapons. Research studies by academics include young gang members who have consented to taking part in a published research study, so it is believed that any data from interviews conducted in previous reports are acceptable to use for secondary data. This therefore means that the ethical code (4: iii) will not be breached. However, if an entire data set was used for the present research, a Research Ethics Committee would have been required to conduct an expedited review (Economic and Social Research Council).

Because this is a secondary research one of the major limitations is that some sources, especially internet sources may not be reliable, so a serious amount of importance was placed when using reliable data and sources from the internet as well as sources where the reliability of the internet information was uncertain. In addition to this No favoured judgement has been made towards certain research findings and a conscious effort has been made by the researcher not to manipulate or misinterpret the findings to suit the research question. By doing so a one sided argumen


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