Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop

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Hip-hop has come a long way from its origins in the Bronx in the 1970s, when rapping and DJing were just part of a lively, decidedly local scene that also venerated b-boying and graffiti. Now hip-hop is a global phenomenon and, in the United States, a massively successful corporate enterprise predominantly controlled and consumed by whites while the most prominent performers are black. How does this shift in racial dynamics affect our understanding of contemporary hip-hop, especially when the music perpetuates stereotypes of black men? Do black listeners interpret hip-hop differently from white fans?

These questions have dogged hip-hop for decades, but unlike most pundits, Michael P. Jeffries finds answers by interviewing everyday people. Instead of turning to performers or media critics, Thug Life focuses on the music’s fans—young men, both black and white—and the resulting account avoids romanticism, offering an unbiased examination of how hip-hop works in people’s daily lives. As Jeffries weaves the fans’ voices together with his own sophisticated analysis, we are able to understand hip-hop as a tool listeners use to make sense of themselves and society as well as a rich, self-contained world containing politics and pleasure, virtue and vice.

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Editorial Reviews

William Julius Wilson
“Michael Jeffries has written an important book. Beautifully written and replete with original insights, Thug Life brilliantly integrates interesting interviews of black and white hip-hop listeners with a careful textual analysis of hip-hop narratives. Readers are rewarded with a sophisticated, definitive analysis that not only captures the similarities and differences of black and white hip-hop followers, but also severely challenges conventional wisdom about this important worldwide social movement. With its impressive interdisciplinary scope, this book is a must-read for scholars and students interested in literary and cultural criticism as well as the sociology of race, class, and gender.”—William Julius Wilson, Harvard University
S. Craig Watkins
“This is a finely developed and sophisticated analysis of the complex terrain of hip-hop. Rather than celebrate its obvious achievements or denigrate its equally evident blemishes, Jeffries chooses instead to probe the vibrant world that hip-hop continues to create with honesty and integrity. His discussion of masculinity in hip-hop is subtle and smart as he moves adroitly across the everyday fields in which expressions of black manhood matter most as well as the commercialized spaces that are integrally involved in the production and performance of black male identities.”--S. Craig Watkins, University of Texas at Austin
Murray Forman
“Jeffries’ contributions in Thug Life are multiple; he adds depth to our understanding of how hip-hop is understood and valued among its racially diverse audiences, and he provides a truly inspired analysis of masculinity and thug identities by embracing the too often ignored components of compassion, vulnerability, and love. This is a necessary and important intervention in hip-hop studies.”—Murray Forman, Northeastern University
William Julius Wilson
“Michael Jeffries has written an important book. Beautifully written and replete with original insights, Thug Life brilliantly integrates interesting interviews of black and white hip-hop listeners with a careful textual analysis of hip-hop narratives. Readers are rewarded with a sophisticated, definitive analysis that not only captures the similarities and differences of black and white hip-hop followers, but also severely challenges conventional wisdom about this important worldwide social movement. With its impressive interdisciplinary scope, this book is a must-read for scholars and students interested in literary and cultural criticism as well as the sociology of race, class, and gender.”--William Julius Wilson, Harvard University
Murray Forman
“Jeffries’ contributions in Thug Life are multiple; he adds depth to our understanding of how hip-hop is understood and valued among its racially diverse audiences, and he provides a truly inspired analysis of masculinity and thug identities by embracing the too often ignored components of compassion, vulnerability, and love. This is a necessary and important intervention in hip-hop studies.”--Murray Forman, Northeastern University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226395845
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2011
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael P. Jeffries is assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College.

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Read an Excerpt

Thug Life

Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-39585-2

Chapter One

The Meaning of Hip-Hop

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. —M. T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

I listen to hip-hop every single day of my life. —Marc (w1)

"I Am Hip-Hop"

Picture the scene at a Jay-Z concert: tens of thousands of people from all walks of life, shoulder to shoulder in a massive sports arena, singing every word of their favorite rap anthems for two hours straight. It makes sense to think of such events as proof that we can be one nation under a groove, connected to each other through the power of music. In these situations, the life experiences and belief systems that divide and differentiate us seem to melt away as we collectively affirm the power of hip-hop. But even in these moments of synchronized mass participation when we are all identified with hip-hop, might we be hearing different things and living through the music in vastly different ways? Or is hip-hop identity strong enough to erode the boundaries between us?

Legendary MC and hip-hop philosopher KRS-One believes that anyone can relate to hip-hop and that hip-hop provides limitless opportunities for those who wish to connect to it or through it:

When it comes to Hip-Hop, there is no race, there's no ethnicity, there's no "this is mine." It's like, I can relate to that, I can relate to that. I can relate to this, I can relate to this. If I can relate to all of this, what does that say about me? And then you go back to your own people and they don't relate to you. Which is where the whole "I am Hip-Hop" philosophy comes from. (quoted in Long 2009)

Controversially, KRS suggests that this process of relating to hip-hop has the potential to throw one's previous sense of self into disarray, revealing that previous affiliations with one's "own people" may fail to provide the same material for relating or connecting as hip-hop. For KRS-One, hip-hop identity becomes the best available identity for sustaining human complexity, as antiquated markers of race and ethnicity pale in comparison.

This chapter tests KRS's thesis, as everyday listeners define hip-hop and talk about how it corresponds to their sense of self. Music constitutes a rich form of symbolic material through which individuals forge identities and locate themselves in society. If hip-hop enables people to find themselves and relate to each other, we should expect to find some elaboration of both personal and collective identity within respondents' descriptions of what hip-hop is and how it is used. The import of such a finding is that these distinctions have undeniable, if unquantifiable, effects not only on respondents' sense of self but on cultural politics and power relations, as they redraw the boundaries around "us" and "them."

As noted in the introduction, those looking for a direct connection between one's status as a hip-hop fan and revolutionary political practice are likely to be disappointed. But as Lawrence Grossberg explains, "Fandom is, at least potentially, the site of the optimism, invigoration and passion which are necessary conditions for any struggle to change the conditions of one's life ... While there is no guarantee that even the most highly charged moments will become either passive sites of evasion or active sites of resistance, without the affective investments of popular culture the very possibility of such struggles is likely to be drowned in the sea of historical pessimism" (1992a, 65).

I begin with a brief discussion of the application of social movement theory to hip-hop and sketch a basic outline of the relationship between social movements and collective identity. After providing these theoretical frames, I introduce each respondent and explain how the sample is divided into race and class categories. Data reveal listeners' understanding of what "hip-hop" means and how one's affinity for hip-hop and social identity are connected. The chapter closes with a discussion of hip-hop's influence on respondents who engage and use it in multiple ways.

Hip-Hop as a Social Movement

S. Craig Watkins grapples most earnestly with questions of commercialized hip-hop's political import, arguing persuasively for a continued understanding of hip-hop as a unique social movement:

In many ways, hip hop represents a particular species of social movement ... First, this particular movement takes place on the field of popular culture, a site not immediately discerned as political, or capable of producing social change. Second, hip hop is invigorated by the creative labor of a constituency not ordinarily regarded as interested in effecting social change: youth. Third, like social movements in general, hip hop enables its participants to imagine themselves as part of a larger community; thus, it produces a sense of collective identity and agency. (1998, 65)

The final sentence of this quotation, about hip-hop's potential to produce collective identity, is the axis on which this chapter spins and is at the core of the academic debate about what a social movement is. Watkins offers a broad definition of social movements, characterizing them as "collective efforts to produce social change" (1998, 65). Charles Tilly (2004) is a bit more specific, emphasizing that those who act and make claims in such movements are ordinary people rather than members of the politically powerful and elite. The trouble comes when questions about the specific challenges posed, groups targeted, and changes achieved take center stage in the debate. Disagreements about challenges, targets, and changes have resulted in a two-pronged typology in social movement literature. "Old" social movements are understood to have occurred primarily in Europe during the nineteenth century and are solely concerned with protest motivated by class interests and carried out by members who share a class status (R. Williams 2004, 92). The goals of these movements are institutional changes that result in political and economic redistribution. "New" social movements offer a corrective to this limited model, expanding the definition of social movements to include those that occur outside of Europe during the twentieth century and focus on "cultural understandings, norms, and identities rather than material interests" (R. Williams 2004, 92). The defining characteristics of new social movements are (1) identity, autonomy, and self-realization; (2) defense rather than offense; (3) politicization of everyday life; (4) nonclass or middle-class mobilization; (5) self-exemplification (organizational forms and styles that mimic the ideology of the movement); (6) unconventional means (as opposed to conventional means such as voting); and (7) partial and overlapping commitments (a web of overlapping memberships rather than party loyalty) (Calhoun 1995).

The differences between old and new social movements are not as great as many believe—many of the old movements were undoubtedly concerned with identity, culture, and language, elements essential to solidifying the collective and forming the message of the movement. Defining social movements as phenomena that deal explicitly and exclusively with class interests constitutes not only an analytic failure but a wrongful effort to exclude the efforts of peoples marginalized by other forms of categorization, such as marginalized racial and ethnic groups in America, from definitions of what constitutes legitimate political action (Calhoun 1995, 176).

From all this, we see that hip-hop's status as a social movement is intimately bound with who hip-hop participants understand themselves to be. For this reason, collective identity is a crucial element in movement production and sustenance. Collective identity is "an individual's cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution. It is a perception of shared status or relation, which may be imagined rather than experienced directly ... Collective identities are expressed in cultural materials—names, narratives, symbols, verbal styles, rituals, clothing, and so on—but not all cultural materials express collective identities" (Polletta and Jasper 2001, 84). It is possible to have a personal identity that is not tied to a larger collective, and in part for this reason, one may argue that simply defining oneself does not in and of itself constitute a politically significant act or serve as adequate evidence of a social movement. But as Scott Hunt and Robert Benford observe, "By virtue of constructing and elaborating a sense of who they are, movement participants and adherents also construct a sense of who they are not" (1994, 443). This process of differentiation is an important one and clearly qualifies as politically significant if we keep Calhoun's insights about the defensive character of new social movements in mind.

Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison reaffirm that "social movements are the result of an interactional process which centers around the articulation of a collective identity" (1991, 4) and make the case that music is a cognitive phenomenon with tremendous potential to influence social movements by virtue of its "knowledge-building and identity-giving qualities" (1998, 23). When they talk of social movements as knowledge-building collective praxis, Eyerman and Jamison speak of knowledge both as a general worldview and as any specific issue or topic that movement participants are focused on (1991, 3). I sifted through the interview data looking for evidence of both types of knowledge, and while respondents' contributions failed to provide evidence that the hip-hop movement is explicitly concerned with a specific set of social issues or political topics, there is plenty of evidence that suggests respondents use hip-hop to understand their social worlds.

"Collective identities are talked into existence" (Hunt and Benford 2004, 445). I set out to hear everyday listeners talk, conducting interviews to uncover respondents' "symbolic work," which Paul Willis explains has four crucial elements: language, the active body, drama, and symbolic creativity (1990, 11). Each of these elements serves as a symbolic resource for human practitioners, but of the four, symbolic creativity emerges as the key concept. Symbolic creativity is an active force that produces identities and orients us in the world. Willis's great contribution here is that that the inspiration for, and ability to perform, identity cultivation inheres in each of us rather than exclusively outside of us. We are not simply products of omnipotent structures that mold us into predetermined social beings. Studying individuals in addition to structural forces and institutions is therefore essential to understanding identity and social life. This is not to say that structural context is irrelevant and human creative capacity reigns supreme in the realm of identity. To the contrary, the point is that each of us exercises symbolic creativity in the context of structural forces using cultural materials to build our sense of self. Symbolic creativity produces individual and collective identities that "affirm our active sense of our own vital capacities, the powers of the self and how they might be applied to the cultural world" (Willis 1990, 12).

With this understanding of symbolic creativity and its connection to social movements in mind, we turn to the list of respondents, their definitions of hip-hop, and their understandings of themselves.

The Respondents

A complete description of recruitment methods and other methodological considerations appears in the appendix. Here it suffices to say that each respondent was recruited in the Boston metropolitan area and is included in the sample because he is someone who regularly enjoys commercially successful hip-hop. Respondents were either approached at a place where such hip-hop is featured or consumed, such as a record store or a club or concert affiliated with the major hip-hop radio station, or recommended by someone at such a site. Placing the young men I spoke with into class categories was a challenging task. Traditional measurements of class are dependent on occupation, income, and education. However, when applied across racial lines, these criteria must be considered with attention to residential space. Poverty, disorder, and ghetto culture are central to analyses of hip-hop meaning, thanks to the symbolic importance of the ghetto as an element of hip-hop authenticity and the historical importance of neglected urban space as the birthplace of hip-hop culture. If I am investigating whether blacks with ghetto experience will understand and describe commercially successful hip-hop in different ways than whites who are alienated from the ghetto, I must be sure that my sample contains a fair number of respondents who fit those descriptions. The list below separates respondents by race and neighborhood experience, based on where each respondent has lived most of his life. No white respondent describes his neighborhood as predominantly black.

White Respondents with Impoverished Neighborhood Experience (7 Total)

ABE is a twenty-year-old construction worker from a largely white and working-class neighborhood in a small city. He is a high school graduate with no college education. He describes growing up as "a little rough" and discusses the presence of drugs and violence in his neighborhood.

ADAM is a twenty-one-year-old construction worker from a working class neighborhood in a small city. He did not complete high school and describes his neighborhood as a mix of working people and poor people. Neighborhood disorder was fairly commonplace, and Adam has served less than a year in jail for selling drugs, an activity he no longer partakes in.

ANTHONY is a twenty-one-year-old full-time college student. He is a Serbian national from an impoverished but safe neighborhood in Serbia who attends college in the United States by virtue of a full athletic scholarship. He describes his family circumstances as "great," despite the considerable hardships they have endured as a result of war and economic instability in his homeland. Because he is Serbian, Anthony does not self-identify as white, but he acknowledges that others see him as white.

CHRIS is a twenty-three-year-old fast-food restaurant worker from a predominantly white working-class neighborhood in a small city. He completed high school but has no college education and still resides in the neighborhood in which he grew up, though he believes far more wealthy people live there now than during his childhood.

FRED is a twenty-four-year-old who works in sales and lives in a working-class and middle-class suburban neighborhood. He holds a high school diploma but has no college education. The neighborhood in which he grew up was almost entirely white and deeply impoverished, with a high volume of drugs and street crime.

JAMES is a twenty-three-year-old high school graduate who attends college part time. He lives in public housing in the neighborhood he grew up in, which is racially mixed but severely impoverished.

KEVIN is a twenty-year-old grocery store clerk who grew up in different neighborhoods, some of which were more comfortable than others. He terminated his high school education after ninth grade because, he says, "It's not that I like going against people, I just don't like to be told what to do." He served more than a year in prison for a drug conviction.

White Respondents without Impoverished Neighborhood Experience (13 Total)

BRANDON is a twenty-three-year old manager at a restaurant and bar. He completed high school but terminated his college education after two years. His home neighborhood was a mostly white middle- to working-class section of a small city, and he lives in a similar neighborhood today.

DAMIEN is twenty years old and currently unemployed. He grew up in a mixed middle- and working-class suburban neighborhood. Damien has a high school degree from what he describes as a "trade school" and no college education.

ERIC is a twenty-three-year-old full-time college student who works part time at a radio station. He grew up in a mostly white middle-class suburb and counts his family among those who live comfortably.

ISAAC is a twenty-three-year-old part-time college student who does not work to support himself. He describes the neighborhood in which he grew up as a mostly white "upper-middle-class" small town.

KENNY is a twenty-two-year-old full-time college student at a prestigious university. He is from what he describes as an upper-middle-class white urban neighborhood.

MARC is twenty-three years old and works in sales. He is a college graduate from a mostly white middle-class suburban community.

PAUL is a twenty-four-year-old computer hardware tester with a college degree. He grew up in a mostly white middle-class suburb.

PETE is twenty-three years old and currently unemployed but financially stable. He completed high school and one year of community college before discontinuing his education. He is from an overwhelmingly white and wealthy suburban community.


Excerpted from Thug Life by MICHAEL P. JEFFRIES Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction / State of the Hip-Hop Union
One / The Meaning of Hip-Hop
Two / From a Cool Complex to Complex Cool
Three / Thug Life and Social Death
The Bridge: Summary of Chapters Two and Three
Four / Hip-Hop Authenticity in Black and White
Five / Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics
Conclusion / The Last Verse
Epilogue / Obama as Hip-Hop Icon


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