Should we be scared of black culture's influence on white kids?

What I want I take/What I don't I break/And I don't want you/With a flick of my knife/I can change your life/There's nothin' you can do

What I want I stash/What I don't I smash/And you're on my list/Dead or alive/I got a .45/And I never miss
- The music destroying our youth
Alongside trying desperately to make David Starkey's remarks on last Friday's Newsnight appear innocuous and not racist, his apologists seem to be telling us that he raised a serious issue that must be addressed: there is a criminal sub-culture that originated in the black community, and white kids are now involved in it.  Oh noes!  We must address this now that white kids are joining in!


First of all, just to get this out of the way before we go on, we have no idea what sort of music the people rioting last week listened to.  Nobody was going round with a clipboard, taking a survey.

Young people in the UK, black, Asian and white, listen to all sorts of different kinds of music and are parts of all sorts of different overlapping cliques.  Hip-Hop is just one of many musical genres kids might dip into, along with things like R&B, that crappy dance music they always play in my bloody gym and so on.

To assume that the white kids rioting last week were a bunch of mini Ali G's, you have to adopt a kind of circular argument, starting with your conclusion.

But let's leave the riots aside for a minute, since this is an important issue and we cannot let political correctness get in the way of us discussing it. Should we be worried about white working class kids being subsumed by black culture and therefore becoming violent?

Probably not, eh?

People have wrung their hands at what it is that makes young people, especially young working class people, oh-so-violent and rebellious for at least as long as humans have been on the planet.  In the last couple of decades this has ended up being expressed as a moral panic about anything that's remotely new, music or otherwise, and people decide that's to blame.  It could be heavy metal, punk, rock and roll, video nasties, video games, Dungeons and Dragons, the internet and on and on and on. In the 1950s some numpty in the States decided it was comic books.

But it seems that every generation, there's a criminal youth subculture that should make us noisily defecate at the mere sight of a young person, often based around a musical scene. Teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, metallers.  Even new romantics, although the fear there wasn't so much that they were criminal and violent, and more that they might be gay.

Oh-so-unhealthy lyrics about violence and materialism and tunes that demean women are not exclusive to black culture, or even particularly new. When I was a teenager, my record collection was filled with swaggering garbage about battering people to death with hammers. In the 70s, Elton bloody John sang about how brilliant it is to have a fight on a Saturday.

Jesus, in the 80s these scary bruisers had a hit about big talk being cheap talk unless you're backing it up and one called 'Dirty, Rotten, Filthy, Stinking Rich':

Nothing says 'tough' like a blowdried poodle perm.
Oh, and they also sang 'Cherry Pie'.  About shagging.  But with gangsta rap, something new happened (or at least, something old could be recycled).  Now we can blame things on black people.  If only we could sort out the problems inherent in black culture, white kids would not be influenced to be violent and rebellious.


But it's not just music. There's a whole subculture of glorifying crime and violence these kids are part of. A whole black subculture. You can tell from the accents and slang of white kids who are becoming black. Just listen to them!  This is new, right?

Not really.  Adults have been worried about and threatened by young people's slang for at least as long as they've been worried about what makes young people so violent and rebellious.

Anthony Burgess wrote 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962, an expression of fear of feral, violent youths, written in their initially almost indecipherable slang of English portmanteau words mixed with words from Eastern European languages.  There's a cracking scene towards the end of the book where Alex, the violent young narrator, is horrified to encounter a younger person speaking in a slang he doesn't quite get.  People were nervous about how they couldn't understand young people and why they were so violent and lawless forty years ago.

Before the Windrush even landed on these shores, working class people in London used rhyming slang, which was possibly invented to fool detectives who were listening in on you creating your nefarious criminal plans.  For a hundred years, white working class people in London spoke in a way that was influenced by criminality.

Something I can remember from when I was a kid are the letters sent to 'Points of View' by pearl-clutching posh parents, complaining that 'Grange Hill' was influencing their children to speak like working class people.  Oh, the horror!

But what's new?  Some youths are talking in a way that is influenced by black people.  If only our white kids weren't pretending to be black, they'd be as well spoken as they would be well behaved.

That's, like, well rubbish and that innit?

Worrying about violent kids, their scary influences and the way they speak is hardly new or even specifically linked to black culture.  But what about glorifying criminals and gangs?  That's new, right?  That's unique to black culture?

In 2000 and 2007, thousands of people lined the streets of the East End to watch two funeral processions, of gangsters who had come to be idolised.  These were the funerals of the infamous black gangsters of the 60s, the Kray twins.  Oh wait, they weren't black.  Neither were most of the people lining the streets.

Go and look at the 'true crime' section in your local bookshop and check out all the books with titles like "Geezer!", "Hard Man!" and "Smash your face in!" Are these about black guys?

For decades and decades, Hollywood pumped out movie after movie about gangsters, from Jimmy Cagney to Marlon Brando.  In fact, I saw 'New Jack City' in a Film Studies class, where we examined how it followed the same patterns and tropes as earlier gangster films despite it being unusual (at the time) because it was about black people.

In 1988 there was a panic about Prince Charles attending the premiere of 'Buster', because it might glorify criminals and influence our kids.

In England, our greatest folk hero is a bloody criminal.  As we know him, Robin Hood might well be committing bad acts for the greater good, but that wasn't necessarily evident in the early ballads where he first appeared.  There's one where he robs and murders a Friar, and murders his page boy so as not to leave witnesses.  Nice. Ballads glorifying child murderers from the 13th century.

'Romeo and Juliet' is heavy on the gang violence theme. That's from the olden days.

None of this is new or different.  When it comes to being frightened for, and frightened of youth, adults have always blamed some sort of subculture.  We've always blamed music. We've always been scared of how young people speak.  We've always wrung our hands about the glorification of crime.  We've even always glorified bloody crime and gangs, from Dick Turpin to 'Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels'.

Now, this is not to say that there isn't a problem with gang culture and violence in inner-cities.  It's also not to say that the violence isn't more serious than it was a few decades ago, as it certainly seems to be.

Is this a problem within the black community?  You can't ignore the stats for gun and knife crime in London - but what you can do is look to see if violent gang culture is peculiar to the black community.  As has been raised several times in this debate, violent gangs have existed up in the whiter parts of Glasgow since, like, forever.  Nobody asks what it is about white culture that produces those gangs.

If you really want to get to the bottom of why violent gang culture exists, you really need to look at what's the same about gangs in different areas, not what's different.  And if you want to know what drives black gang culture specifically, you look at the practical things that influence it - the availability of drugs, the ease of acquiring guns.  Things I don't know much about.  You don't look at the bloody music and accents.

Violent Hip-Hop lyrics do not spring from a vacuum.  Listening to some people in the last few days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything was rosy and lovely and tea and crumpets and then suddenly, boom!  Black people suddenly with no outside influences started producing violent and materialistic music that swept our helpless youth along in an amoral frenzy.  But, of course, that music and those lyrics are produced as a reaction to something.

And, going back to the riots, perhaps the thing that led to the creation and rise in popularity of some Hip-Hop is the same thing that led people to mindlessly loot instead of target civic buildings.  Hip-Hop is not the only place you see encouragement to blindly consume. Hip-Hop is not the only place where what products you buy are seen as status symbols.  It is a product of the environment in which those things exist.

And mindless consumption and the measurement of self worth by how many new, shiny products we own that are more expensive than our neighbours' is not something society took from black culture. Even a violent and criminal one.

Now, for those of you who like their gangsta rap, here's a live performance of the lyrics I quoted at the beginning of this post. You might not have heard of it. It's quite new:


A Nonny Mouse said...


If only the many 'advisors' that the Government will likely hear from in the coming months had a scintilla of the sense and perspective shown in this post, we may make some progress.

Sadly, even if they do hear it, the politicians will ignore it in favour of jerking of knees and jumping of bandwagons.

Even more sadly, it will enable the media (specifically the tabloids) to attempt to regain the high ground with calls for 'tough justice' and 'reclaiming our streets', and move away from the 'inconvenient truth'(tm) that was being revealed about their own moral bankruptcy.

I can't deny that I find the sound of young middle class white people attempting to be 'street' by using patois (or whatever the correct term is, forgive my age...) seems fairly odd, but I would not for a second consider that a guidance to criminal behaviour, or to a 'black culture' any more than I would consider the Neanderthals from the EDL to represent 'white culture'.

Consumerism and the breakdown of 'society' (whatever that is) could be laid just as easily (if not more so) at the door of Thatcher and her ilk for putting the acquisition of wealth (by shareholders of private companies) above any need for responsible business behaviour or social justice.

p.s. For the hard of thinking, nothing I say above is condoning the committing of looting or arson by anybody, its possible to criticise behaviour whilst considering what factors may have brought about that behaviour and whether the responsibility for those factors is entirely one persons (see any parenting book since about 1960)

Keir said...

Bit of a difference between music that advocates rape, violence, criminal behaviour and Der Stuermer-type eradication of homosexuals, snitches and rivals and Elton John advocating a Saturday-night palaver.

Five Chinese Crackers said...


That's why I mentioned more than just than one song. I'm rolling my eyes now.

Anonymous said...

As an old punk and a Glaswegian who grew up embedded in gang culture, the way in which race is being shoe-horned in to somehow "justify" the link between black culture and the riots is pitiful. The linkage of music to violence is decades old, if not centuries. You can talk about "Elton John advocating a Saturday-night palaver" as different from rap lyrics now but what if someone who is now acknowledged as a national treasure were to advocate, say, terrorism? Or have we forgotten about Joe Strummer's Brigate Rosse and RAF banners and t-shirts?

Music, like much literature, uses hyperbole as a means of expression. Yes there are plenty of detestable lyrics in a lot of music but that is not a uniquely black issue.

And with our PM on his high horse, let's not forget that he actually pretends his favourite song is Eton Rifles. And I don't remember that song provoking random groups of youths popping over to Eton for a bit of bother. Sadly.

Jake said...

And for contrast, here's some rap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygzSXn3oxKU

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Let's be clear for @Kier.

The music I talk about in the OP apparently advocates serial murder. One particular track by the band in the video I've embedded there was actually blamed for inspiring a real life serial killer. And yes, it was dad rockers, AC/DC. Seriously, songs about battering people to death and dismembering corpses are ten a penny in metal.

Talking of 'Der Sturmer' type stuff, we're talking about songs accused of glorifying Joseph Mengele. And songs that called for lynching the pope.

A whole lame moral panic sprang from metal apparently advocating suicide in the 80s, and let's not even start on the Satanic Panic of the same decade.

Whatever music kids were listening to, and whatever the lyrics were about, I absolutely, double-dog guaran-damn-tee we'd be sitting here wringing our hands about how terrible it is and how its making our youth lawless and disrespectful and criminal.

Patrick Neylan said...

Thanks for moving the conversation on: whether Starkey was racist is one thing; whether his points need addressing (within or outside the context of the riots) is another.

Music does influence the culture of those who listen to it, but only if it reflects something about that culture in the first place, or at least its aspirations.

One can argue that 'rap' culture seems to influence listeners to fully adopt the 'undesirable' lifestyle portrayed in the songs more than previous musical movements, and that the performers actually live those lifestyles (Bon Scott never threatened Lemmy with a flickknife, but guns certainly did for 2Pac and BIG). But I'd like to see some proper evidence for that before I believe it.

Good post, and I'm glad it didn't fall into the trap I thought it was going to.

Robbert said...

"A whole lame moral panic sprang from metal apparently advocating suicide in the 80s"

I loved what Ozzy Osbourne said when accused of advocating suicide.

"Why would I urge my fans to kill themselves? If they all did, who'd buy my next album?"

The accusations were particularly laughable in his case, because one look at the lyrics of Suicide Solution - instead of just the title - made it abundantly clear the song was in fact a warning against alcohol abuse, rather the promotion of any untowardness.

Iain said...

Just picking up on the "the white kids is talkin like black youth, innit" thing. This is patent nonsense, too. The white, black and asian kids are talking like, well, like 21st-century teenagers. I know plenty of black adults in their 40s and 50s, and whether they grew up in Britain, Africa or the Caribbean, none of them use anything like the language and accent that you can hear on the top deck of any London bus being used by kids of all colours.

The children who grew up in inner London in the 1960s and 70s didn't speak the "gaw blimey apples and pears" Cockney of their grandparents; they developed a slang and accent which grew into what's now described as Estuary English. That in turn is being replaced in urban London by an accent derived from the background of those urban Londoners. Not just Jamaican influences, but also that from urban USA, from the Indian subcontinent, and also from more traditional London. Even the infamous case of saying "innit" at the end of every sentence is derived from a similar construction in Hindi.

So not only was Starkey talking racist nonsense to imply that "white kids talk black, black people commit crime, so now the white kids are committing crime too". He was actually wrong that the white kids are talking black in the first place.

sianandcrookedrib said...

great post!
i always find it interesting how people single out hip hop when it comes to sexist and homophobic lyrics. yes, they exist in hip hop (not all though) but it exists across the board. even short lived boy band V (like, a worse 5ive. yeah. imagine!) had a song about stalking a woman. The Beatles i'm sure had a song about hitting a woman? or am i wrong? and look at what Spinal Tap was satirising!
As you say, whatever 'the yoof' are listening to, adults would find a way to call it a bad influence. It's easy to blame a song. Harder to look at the causes of disenfranchisement in communities.

Anonymous said...

The Beatles song "run for your life" seem to be about violence towards women.

Anonymous said...

Run For Your Life, by The BEatles:

Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or I won't know where I am

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end'a little girl

Well you know that I'm a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind
And I can't spend my whole life
Trying just to make you toe the line

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end'a little girl

Let this be a sermon
I mean everything I've said
Baby, I'm determined
And I'd rather see you dead

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end'a little girl

I'd rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or you won't know where I am

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end'a little girl
Na, na, na
Na, na, na
Na, na, na
Na, na, na

Influenced by Elvis Presley's "Baby, Let's Play House". Exctract:

Now listen to me, baby
Try to understand.
I'd rather see you dead, little girl,
Than to be with another man.
Now baby,
Come back, baby gone.
Come back, baby gone.
Come back, baby, I wanna play house with you.

lushd said...

When I first came across Ephebiphobia (the fear of youth) I thought it was slightly odd and funny as an idea. But as this post makes clear, older people have always had a big streak of fear of younger people. Right through history. They've always lamented the decline in behaviour, manners and standards since "their day" and blamed everything from that awful beat music to playing dice and even reading novels which were once held to be a very bad influence indeed on young women.

A few years ago the BBC did a brilliant series of documentaries called "Secret Britain" which demolished the idea, much cherished by Daily Mail readers, that there was once a golden age when everything was lovely. It should be repeated.

ejh said...

Cracking song, Problem Child.

MattyinSE9 said...

Run For Your Life was written by John Lennon who had a big problem about being jealous when he was younger. He treated his first wife and child pretty poorly but I don't think he actually hit them. I think he was getting over it as he matured a bit though. Jealous Guy is a great song.

Token Coloured said...

@ Patrick Neylan

"One can argue that 'rap' culture seems to influence listeners to fully adopt the 'undesirable' lifestyle portrayed in the songs more than previous musical movements...."

Put very nicely. Only a week and a half ago a Channel 4 documentary called How Hip Hop Changed The World was on. In true Hip Hop fashion it was rather braggadocious. However it did acknowledge how Hip Hop is a unique industry that not only includes music, but also includes fashion, slang etc.

I would argue the 'dangerous' thing about Gansta Rap is that it is part of this unique industry.

Whilst there are examples of equally bad (that's bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good) lyricism from our White brothers, they are not usually part of a music genre that does exactly what it says on the can.

Is it possible that 'immature' minds might take Gansta Rap a wee bit too seriously? You listen to it, you talk it, you walk it, you wear it, you live it?

One of the scariest things i've seen in recent times was CCTV footage of a 'shoot out' in a car park in Nottingham (yes Blud, i'm from NG, y'get me).

The shooter held the gun just like Ganstaz do. We've all seen it. Hold the gun at a a 90 degree angle whilst firing.

Was holding the gun that way simply part of gang culture evolution? Or the influence of popular culture on gang culture?

Check out Apprentice 2007 winner Tim Campbell's comments on this issue:

Ben said...

"However it did acknowledge how Hip Hop is a unique industry that not only includes music, but also includes fashion, slang etc."

Hardly unique, musical styles have always had a 'look' associated with them. Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood's involvement with the Sex Pistols is a notorious example, or the 'flapper girls' of the 1920s. Or Mods. And they've always had their own slang terms, some of which pass into general usage, while others remained obscure and impenetrable.

*Word verification - proles. How apropos