Do Violent Lyrics Make People Violent? What is The Impact of Music?
Mont Brown and Pace-O Beats of The Astronauts drive through Southwest Philadelphia, anxious to start their tour of their old neighborhood — near 54th and Trinity streets, where much of the inspiration for their music is derived from.
They park a few blocks away from Mont’s former home. As they walk down Trinity, Brown takes a moment to look down at the very spot where a friend was gunned down a few years back. He was targeted, Brown says, but no one really knows why.
The Astronauts’ music represents the truth of what they and others have experienced – it’s sometimes violent and otherwise off-color, much like the way life was when they were growing up and still is for some of their friends today.
“I’m the one who does the lyrics,” Brown says. “It’s no hold punches. Everything I’m saying is real.”
In his song “All I Had,” the chorus rings: “I do this for my mom, I do this for my son / I do it with this rap or I do it with a gun / I sell a little crack just to eat a little lunch.”
But The Astronauts also try to motivate people to do better. They took their group’s name from Guion “Guy” Bluford, a West Philly native, who in 1983 was the first black astronaut to enter space.
“It’s a message,” Brown says. “It’s ‘Mona Lisa,’ like a picture that is being painted. We’re not lying, that’s first and foremost. These are real situations. Everything we rap about is the God’s honest truth. Nothing is fabricated. And I’m just telling these kids that Guy Bluford, he made it and we can make it just as well.”
Last summer, The Astronauts hosted a huge block party in Southwest Philly called the Stop The Violence Festival. With proceeds benefiting the Mothers in Charge Foundation, the intention was to bring the community together to show there are ways to interact peacefully.
“There was no violence the whole day,” Brown says. “We just proved right there that we all can come together for one common goal and that’s exactly what happened. I’m around this shit everyday, I know that we got so much potential to do better.”
Brown continues the tour, coming to a friend’s home, which is now abandoned. On the wall is a collection of old gum that is plastered to bricks, forming the words “54th and Ghetto.”
It’s the same rawness and bluntness of this mixed media graffiti that Pace says The Astronauts employ in their songs. A level of ratchetry grabs people’s attention.
“It’s quicker when you try to give a message, I mean, especially in our culture as black people,” he says. “If you’re glorifying it, I think people are just going to go with the flow.”
And not hiding the ratchetry or debauchery of life from art, Mont adds, is actually a positive thing for his people, his community.
“I’m literally telling you what we’re doing, you know, in the neighborhood that I’m from,” he says. “The neighborhood respects me and him for doing this. No matter what I’m talking about, even though we’re from the ghetto, it’s still a positive thing that we’re doing.”
In our modern media-saturated world, where violence is regularly portrayed on television, in movies, in video games, in music and readily available anywhere on the Internet, the question of the impact of such messages is open for debate.
Music affects people. That cannot be denied. We would not listen to it if it didn’t. But what are the lasting impressions that it leaves?
A 2006 study conducted by the Prevention Research Center at the Pacific Institute for Research Evaluation found that listening to rap and rock music positively predicted aggressive behavior.
Does violent, misogynistic or slanderous language make such ideas acceptable? Does it encourage us to live a certain lifestyle? Does it glorify the negatives of society?
Or, as Mont and Pace say, is music simply a direct representation of life, a relatively easy way for artists – and listeners – to have a voice in this world?
Do certain kinds of music make people commit certain acts of violence?
“Not necessarily,” says Tim Whitaker, the executive director of Mighty Writers, a non-profit writing program for school children that received a grant to do a project about radio that catered toward blacks in Philadelphia between 1950 and 1979. “I think that’s like taking something in a vacuum and pointing a finger at something more complicated than that.”
But music can influence the way a person thinks and feels, he says. He describes himself as being one of those white kids who listened to black radio when he was growing up. So much of the music being played on stations like WDAS and WHAT was being ignored by mainstream radio.
These stations gave a voice to a community that otherwise did not have many outlets anywhere else, and thus became a powerful vehicles. What Georgie Woods played over the airwaves became popular. What Mary Mason said was gospel. What Jocko Henderson did inspired.
There’s been rapid change in the music industry, Whitaker notes, making it hard to see where the future of music is going. Record companies and commercial radio have lost their grip over popular culture, so the traditional ways of success in the music business don’t work anymore. Today, artists can create YouTube videos and reach a level of fame that is unregulated by record companies or radio stations.
Popular music always reflects the times that we live in, like it or not, says promoter Sara Sherr, who has hosted the monthly women’s rock series, Sugar Town, for 11 years. Artists can choose to rebel against conventional wisdom, she adds, with varying degrees of success.
“I think often the music is a reflection of their lives,” Sherr says. “I don’t think it’s the sole cause of violence. Violence has always existed in our society. I don’t think it was invented by rap videos, Marilyn Manson and Columbine, metal, etc., etc. Go back further and there’s violent imagery in the blues and in murder ballads.”
The biggest difference between the music of today versus that of the past, Sherr says, is the technology that’s readily available. It’s now easier for people to make and produce music and to be heard.
Hip-hop artist Jakk Frost says that his music is a reflection of what he might have gone through.
“I’m not in the rush for people to think I’m the realest rapper,” he offers. “I have multiple messages. I don’t think there is anything wrong with rappers making violent music for entertainment purposes. I’m not a one-dimensional rapper. I don’t have no problem portraying myself as a ghetto superhero.”
Frost says that artists should be left to their own devices, without having others dictate to them what should be said. The violence in the world isn’t caused by music, he says. In Philly, the violence that gets discussed in music is rooted in the lack of educational opportunities, family structure and overall frustration about employment prospects, he adds.
“This is bigger than music,” he says. “We let the cops discipline our kids. That fear of consequence is what’s missing. It is affecting our youth to a certain degree. But art is always going to be a reflection of life.”
Video producer Jay Wes says that the context in which violence and aggression is portrayed matters and it can also be interpreted differently.
“It all depends on the people who are receiving the message,” he says.
Wes, who makes videos for Philly talent like Suzann Christine, ICH Gang and Arsin, sometimes presents graphic scenes of murders, beatings and drug dealing. At times, there is an overarching message of stopping violence but at other times, it seems gratuitous.
“I always say there are certain messages for certain people,” Wes says. “Depending on what kind of person you are and what your surroundings are, it might seem offensive.”
Wes adds that even though some music may be negative, it can still make you think.
“Hip-hop is the only music where street credibility comes into question,” he says. “R&B, pop, country? They don’t care about that.”
Wes says that if he were to go to any neighborhood in Philly and announce that he was making a hip-hop video and needed shouts from anybody, you would see most people shouting, “Murder Capitol” or “Killadephia.”
“See, most of these guys are glorifying the violence,” he says. “Yeah, I like it. I like hip-hop. But to keep it real, it comes down to the surroundings and the parents.”
“The music from the past was so much better,” DaSaint says. “More meaningful, more creativity.”
Music influences the youth in the way they speak, their attitudes and even fashion sense, DaSaint says. But music isn’t the source of the ills of society. It’s a reflection of them.
“I can’t blame a person shooting up a school on music,” he says. “It’s deeper than that. Philly is a violent city. It’s filled with a lot of poor, uneducated people with no jobs and they think the only way out of the situation is with violence. You have to rob people to go get a better car or steal from people to get a better house. Poverty makes you do negative things.”
DaSaint started promoting and working with artists before he was locked up in 2000 on drug dealing charges. When he was released in 2009, he turned his life around and is now successful in the music industry and as an urban novelist who writes about street and prison life.
“I just write what I know, and I know that life and that world because I was a part of it,” he says.
At Lucky 13 Pub in South Philadelphia, Chris Fear, one of the vocalists in wrestling-themed hardcore band Eat the Turnbuckle, mentions a recent Facebook conversation he had with a friend about a 13-year-old boy who killed his 5-year-old sister after practicing WWE-style wrestling moves on her. He elbowed, kicked and jumped on her, causing severe blunt force trauma, multiple internal injuries and internal bleeding. The boy later told detectives he knew the wrestling matches he watched on TV were “fake.”
Made up of Philly hardcore all-stars, Eat The Turnbuckle puts on a wild show, with bottles smashed against heads, money stapled to band members and all six members covered in blood by the end of the show. It’s violent and aggressive and real – there’s definitely no ketchup or red syrup involved.
It feels good to get aggressive, Fear says, though he admits that there are audience members who sometimes take it to an unwanted level. But the number of people who go over-the-top is minimal compared to the number of fans who just like the music as an outlet.
“I feel like more often than not,” he says, “the people who do something over-the-top are people who have mental issues because they are living vicariously through the music. If that music didn’t exist, that person might not have experienced that because their imagination was not activated. Music makes you feel. Music activates feelings.”
A person without a lot of social interaction, he continues, may rely upon music to learn social norms or to solve the problems within themselves. People like that are going to style themselves around music because they don’t have an identity.
Despite their bloody stage show, Fear sees Eat The Turnbuckle more as raising awareness for wrestling and wrestling heroes. It’s pure entertainment, not life coaching. Still, show attendees often get riled up and start throwing elbows in the pit.
“There is definitely a contingent of fans who want to get in on the action themselves,” Fear says.
Eric Miller, editor of MAGNET magazine, says that most people want to listen to music that will support the mood that they’re in. Music may resonate more because it’s something you listen to over and over again, whereas not many people will watch a movie or TV show more than once.
But no matter what form of media they may intake, Miller says the responsibility for people’s actions is ultimately on them.
“I think if you listen to a song or watch a movie and you go out and do something stupid, then you’re sort of a dumbass,” he says. “I mean, if you see a video that is violent and you go out and do something violent, I think more responsibility falls on you and not necessarily the person who’s in that movie or who sang the song.”
In a city with a very real crime problem, where the schools are under-funded and job prospects for young people can be grim, does portraying reality ultimately do more harm than good?
Past or present, rock or hip-hop or blues or metal, can art depicting violence be considered fuel for the fire, or does it provide a much-needed outlet to rap, sing, paint or play, rather than do?
Back in the Southwest Philly, Mont talks about his father, Bucky Davis, who was a leader in the Junior Black Mafia, the powerful and violent drug dealing organization that ruled the streets in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He was a true hustler,” Mont says. “So in that respect, yeah, definitely I am inspired by my father. I think I would take his heart and willingness to grind.”
Mont doesn’t know the exact story but says that his father was approached by a couple of guys who gunned him down. Davis was 22.
Mont now walks along Chester Avenue and points to the different shops, bars and restaurants where his father was known and respected.
“He used to run this whole strip,” Mont says. “He was that guy, the Southwest King.”
Many people in Southwest Philly now look up to The Astronauts, largely because The Astronauts took the initiative to do something. Where his father once reigned, people wave or nod to Mont, and a few people reach out to shake his hand or say hello. An elderly woman in front of an immaculate home asks about Mont and Pace’s plans to build a park in the neighborhood.
Music has been his salvation, Mont says. It keeps him sane.
“There’s a separation between Hollywood shit and documentary shit,” he says. “We do a real life kind of music. That’s what it is. Just the truth. I might talk to my friend. He might tell me about a situation that he might be going through with his baby mother or his job just fired him. I just try and talk about the real shit. No ‘all these diamonds around my neck or new cars,’ because that’s fake. It’s not for me. Here, ain’t nobody doing that.”
In Southwest, life is more humble.
“Niece need Pampers, my aunt got cancer / On top of that, Section 8 trying to take our house / Lookin’ in the sky like God, what is this pain about? / Can’t face our problems, so we take drugs to fade ‘em out,” Mont raps in “All I had.” “Play the cards you was dealt because life is a gamble / Stand tall, fuck the law ‘cause goin to jail don’t scare you / Why would they fear you when death is right near you? / We’re screaming our for help, but them crackers don’t hear you.”
Pace says that people in his neighborhood change their appearances depending upon what their favorite rapper is sporting at the time, and that kind of influence should come with responsibility. While The Astronauts are not at that mainstream level of success, they do have people who look up to them and try to emulate their actions.
“Even I need to take a step back from myself, from doing certain shit,” he says. “That’s the hard thing about being a rapper.”
And when they rap about violence, Pace knows that the ultimate message of peace isn’t always received.
“They want to take what you say out of context,” he acknowledges. “But music is an art form.”