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Hip hop is more than just music for Canada's black immigrant youth

Sociology researcher Stefan Lewis finds musical style helps newcomers cope with racism, and foster feelings of inclusion

Stefan Lewis, a graduate student in the University of Calgary Department of Sociology who is active in Calgary's rap music community, presented the findings from his interviews with black, first and second generation immigrant youths from Africa and the Caribbean showing that hip hop music is a resource to cope with the struggles of transitioning to a new society. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Don McSwiney
June 14, 2016

It is difficult to speak about things for which you have no language. If something appears not to exist, or is at least carefully hidden or disguised, it’s hard to talk about intelligently. Stefan Lewis, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology, presented research at Congress 2016 explaining how rap and hip hop music and culture provide the language and expression for black immigrant youth from Africa and Caribbean to better articulate their experience in Canada while fostering feelings of inclusion.

Lewis points out the research is important because the Canadian Council of Social Development estimates that by 2015, 25 per cent of Canadian youth will be immigrants. While these immigrants come from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, there are many who will struggle to make a smooth transition into Canadian society, facing economic barriers and suffering from social exclusion. “As a result,” explains Lewis, “immigrant youth are often prone to feelings of rejection, however studies have shown that if immigrants are able to tap into appropriate resources it can help to tap into a sense of inclusion — hip hop is one such resource.”

Coping with 'shady' racism

Lewis, who is a radio host on CJSW 90.9 FM (University of Calgary’s campus and community radio station), a DJ, and part of Calgary’s rap music community, conducted semi-structured interviews with self-identified black, first- and second-generation immigrant African and Caribbean youths in a critical ethnography. His interviews uncovered major themes related to cultural discrimination, sexism and issues of race and racism. All of Lewis’ participants reported that they had experienced racism in two forms in Canada. The first he refers to as “subtle” racism which his respondents characterized in a variety of ways such as “nonchalant,” “shady” or “underground racism.”

Lewis points out that subtle racism is a very Canadian variety of racism, and he draws on the theoretical approach of contemporary Canadian race scholar George Dei to provide a framework. “Dei argues that although much is made of our multicultural society, there’s a silence of race that is omnipresent,” explains Lewis. “What we do as Canadians is we never acknowledge that racial inequality exists, and to never acknowledge race reinforces racial inequalities ... because it only conceals deep power dynamics that are embedded within our society and are then never addressed.”

How hip hop helps 

With this theoretical framework, Lewis says he was able to conceptualize how respondents’ social worlds were constructed and make sense of the role that hip hop played in their lives. In breaking down how and why the music was so important, Lewis arrived at several themes, beginning with the theme of blackness. “What I found,” says Lewis, “is that hip hop influenced my respondents more than any other art form because it spoke to the struggles of black youth. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, and J. Cole spoke to the respondents on deep emotional levels more than any other art form and helped them to understand that they felt excluded because they were black, and it also helped them challenge and understand and cope with racism and discrimination.”

Lewis also noted that many of his respondents identified hip hop as a mechanism of development and personal growth in their social life. “This was manifest in different sub-themes, such as hip hop as an outlet and a coping mechanism,” says Lewis. “Hip hop helped them foster a sense of self-awareness, and helped them tap into a source of ambition of which they can use or generate some form of confidence.”

A tool for black agency

Finally Lewis said that hip hop was identified by the respondents as an important outlet to “cope with their racial, gender and cultural struggles.” The music form provided an avenue for the youth to take negatives that they couldn’t change and turn them into positives by transforming their anger into a creative act. As one of Lewis’ respondents explained, “When I was younger, before I started rapping, I had no way to vent my anger. I don't know when I first wrote a rap, but what I do remember is that it was anger I was trying to express. Hip hop gave me an outlet for the anger. It was a way I could get all that negativity out without being destructive. It was a creative way to vent my anger. The fact that I could turn something negative into a positive creation was addictive and my life changed.”

Above all, Lewis says that hip hop can be thought of as a tool for black agency in the youth’s lives, as he explains, “Though they faced forms of suppression, discrimination and racism, they were able to use an art form to create their own conditions of existence in the face of difference.”

Lewis presented his research at Congress 2016, a gathering of more than 8,000 scholars in 70 disciplines hosted by the University of Calgary from May 28 to June 3, 2016.