At last week’s ceremony for the new Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship at Harvard, honoree rap artist Nas remarked “Hip-hop is important like computer science. The world is changing. If you want to understand the youth, listen to the music. This is what’s happening right underneath your nose.” Though the value of computer science and the eternal bond between youth and music are indisputable, hip-hop is not anywhere near my nose. In fact, once Steve Jobs invented the iPod in 2001, the teen music we shared in our home went radio silent.
Our son was 11 when he got his first iPod. With ear buds snugly in place, he tuned us out and began to download the music of his choice, increasingly rap and hip-hop. I disapproved of music studded with obscenities, with anti-social and misogynistic lyrics and videos. I hated women being called bitches. He was happy to keep his music choices private whether they were lesser-known artists or the wildly popular Eminem, 50 Cent, and JAY Z whose songs and albums were rising to the top of the Billboard charts. In fact, in 2009, Jay-Z supplanted a 53-year record of most No. 1 albums held by Elvis Presley, yet the single JAY Z song I recognized was Empire State of Mind, recorded with Alicia Keys.
As a family, we were deprived of both communal listening and the lively arguments that every previous generation of teenagers remembers having with their parents. (Think Elvis’ sensuality and the Beatles’ haircuts.) During high school, I loved Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor whose long hair and hippie-ethic were off-putting to my parents. Yet as my LPs splatted down on the turntable in my bedroom and I turned up the radio, my parents inevitably heard my favorite singers and they became known quantities.
According to Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University and the author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,“Listening to music with others causes the release of oxytocin, a chemical associated with feelings of trust and bonding. That’s partly why music listeners become so connected to the artists they like. Plus, the nucleus accumbens — the brain’s well-known pleasure center — modulates levels of dopamine, the so-called feel-good hormone.”
Our kids listen to their music in private, an activity hidden from us like the text messages and snapchats they send to friends over their smart phones. The contemporary hit radio station in the NY-metro area, Z100, features a slightly racy show during morning drive time that our son begged to listen to as a pre-teen. Later, with his iPod or phone in hand, I was free to tune to the station of my choice on the mornings I drove him to school. He sat sleepily in the front seat, earphones serving the dual purpose of playing his songs and blocking my voice.
Without having my kids’ favorite teen music on in the house or the car radio, coupled with my disapproval of hip-hop and rap, I lost a decade of music knowledge. Short of printing out the lyrics and watching hours of MTV, I behaved in a “hear no evil, see no evil” manner and could say nothing more specific than “I don’t like, I don’t want to hear.”
I will never enjoy music with heavy amounts of profanity or songs where women are treated like objects. But at the same time, I don’t want my industry awareness to have peaked in my youth. So, with interest, I will watch for studies to come from the new Harvard center. Marcyliena Morgan is a professor of African and African-American Studies and the founder and director of the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute which will administer the new fellowship. She described the reason for its creation this way:
The purpose is to support people doing work that has to do with the ways hip-hop itself reaches out to youth through the world, and particularly how it brings together issues of social justice, art and politics. That relationship – and how difficult it can be – is an important aspect of what we’re looking at. Hip-hop has been a way of getting the word out in very difficult situations. It’s important to think about what it means to produce a certain kind of art that gets read as reality because it describes harsh situations. You might have an opera, in which the tenor sings an aria saying he is about to kill his wife, and you may have a hip-hop artist singing about the same thing. One is considered art, one is considered life.
Do you listen to the music your teenagers love with them or is it silent at your house?