PhD: American Studies
Thesis Title: ‘Dope Music’: Representation’s of the U.S. ‘War on Drugs’ in Hip-Hop lyricism from the 1970s to the present day.
My thesis will explore the changing and conflicting representations of the Hip-Hop community’s experiences of and attitudes towards the U.S. Government’s ‘War on Drugs’ and the effects of this ‘war’ on the urban black environments which constitute its primary battlegrounds. Following in the West African Literary tradition, Hip-Hop lyricists function as Griots: documenting societal change and sharing narratives through which black communities can navigate an often dangerous, prohibitive and toxic interplay of police, gangs and drugs. My research focuses squarely on the intersection between literary composition and lyricism, economic transaction – both legal and illicit - and a penal system which has expanded and become militarised as a result of the ‘War on Drugs’. Whilst most scholars agree that the trade of illegal narcotics, and the tactics which have been used to police them, have been severely detrimental to African-American neighbourhoods, mainstream Hip-Hop music has largely celebrated the trade as an opportunity to subvert racial discrimination and an oppressive ‘white’ capitalism. This positive articulation is the antithesis of the position formulated in Hip-Hop’s foundational years, where songs such as ‘The Message’ (1982) and ‘White Lines’ (1983) not only decried the influence of narcotic substances themselves but also the socio-political factors which magnified their associated problems of social collapse and poverty. My PhD will explore how and why this divergence occurred through close analysis of Hip-Hop lyricism coupled with a contextualizing socio-political analysis of government rhetoric, media representation and law enforcement. This PhD stems directly from my MPhil dissertation - a sociological, historical and cultural study of the city of Chicago and its problems with the drug trade in relation to the first three albums of rapper and producer Kanye West.
I seek to harness the inherent interdisciplinary nature of Hip-Hop (which comprises four main interconnected elements: dance, graffiti, fashion, and lyricism) as a means to explore the effects of the ‘War on Drugs’ on African-American communities from the 1970s until the present day. Recent studies of the historical activities of the Black Panthers, and the Iran Contra scandal, and of controversial legislation such as the Rockefeller laws, have made ‘Narco’ policing a key topic in the discussion of race relations and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement (e.g. Michelle Alexander; Eugene Jarecki). Surprisingly, however, most contemporary scholarship on the drug wars neglects Hip-Hop’s utility as a source of commentary and its influence in shaping the course of public discussion and government policy around drugs and law enforcement. Similarly, while Hip-Hop is now increasingly prominent in academic debate (e.g. Tricia West: Cornel West), its connections to drug culture remain largely unexplored. Dimitri A. Bogazianos’ 5 Grams (2011), which dissects crack cocaine’s influence on New York rap of the 1990s, is the single scholarly text which seeks to explore the link between the War on Drugs and Hip-Hop lyricism. Whereas 5 Grams offers a study of a single narcotic in relation to a single Hip-Hop movement, my research seeks to offer a more comprehensive analysis of this relationship, and its evolution. Jeff Chang’s seminal Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2005), which explores Hip-Hop’s genesis as a result of a confluence of mid-twentieth century sociological factors and government policy concerning the South Bronx, though it neglects narcotics, provides an ideal model for my research. As can be seen from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement’s use of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, Hip-Hop has been chosen as the soundtrack to this generation’s Civil Rights struggle, and my research will speak to these ongoing tensions between the police and African-American communities.
Dr Nick Heffernan (University of Nottingham)
Assistant Prof. Dr Vivien Miller (University of Nottingham)
- BA English Literature, University of Sheffield, 2009 – 2012
- MPhil Literatures of the Americas, Trinity College Dublin, 2013 – 2014
- Midlands3Cities DTP funded PhD Researcher, University of Nottingham, 2016 – Present
Publications / Conferences:
28/11/2015 – E Pluribus Unum: Out Of Many, One, - The Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Symposium, “Ego Pluribus Unum: How One Man, Speaking For Many, Changed Hip-Hop”
The above paper has been approved for publication in the Irish Association for American Studies journal, publication date tbc.
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