Rap Dreams in South Central: An Interview with Jooyoung Lee

In today’s post, Darryl Robertson, a graduate student at Fordham University, interviews Jooyoung Lee about his new book, Blowin’ UpRap Dreams in South Central, which was released by the University of Chicago Press in 2016. Dr. Lee is an Associate Professor of Sociology and faculty affiliate in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a member of the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project and was previously a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central and is finishing a new book tentatively titled, Ricochet: Surviving Gun Violence in Killadelphia. His new work examines the lived experiences and chronic health problems of people who survive street shootings in Philadelphia’s poorest and most segregated neighborhoods. Lee has also written public pieces about hip hop and gun violence in popular outlets like MacLean’s, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Aeon, and he has also given a TEDx talk, “What Happens to the People We Save?” When he’s not teaching, writing, or public speaking, Lee consults on criminal court cases involving the use of rap lyrics as evidence in murder trials. Follow him on Twitter @theyoungjoo.

Darryl Robertson: Please tell us more about your research. Who or what inspired the research for your book, Blowin’ up: Rap Dreams in South Central?

Jooyoung Lee: Blowin’ Up is inspired by my lifelong love of Hip Hop culture. I grew up in Southern California during the early 1990s, and like many adolescent boys, I was a huge fan of gangsta rap. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was one of the first albums that I owned. I bought it with my allowance money and listened to it non-stop. Even though I didn’t grow up around the stuff described in this music, gangsta rap and other kind of Hip Hop music got me thinking critically about American history and the marginalization of people of color. Hip Hop music also inspired me to get into Djing and pop-lockin’, which became huge parts of my young adult life. In other words, Blowin’ Up is a small ode of appreciation to Hip Hop. It’s one way that I can give back to a culture that has been a source of positivity in my life.

Robertson: How would you summarize the major contributions and interventions of your book? Why is it important to understanding the history of hip-hop in the United States?

Lee: At its core, Blowin’ Up is about the challenges of growing up in low-income African American neighborhoods across “South Central” Los Angeles. While much of the sociological research on urban poor African Americans discusses the conditions that cause unemployment, incarceration, and other negative outcomes, I wanted to tell a different story–one about hope, creativity, and resiliency. Hip Hop culture provides a very important creative outlet for marginalized African American youth. The young men in my book saw Hip Hop as a “creative alternative” to Crip and Blood gangs across “South Central.”

I think this message is critical at this moment, as police and courts continue to criminalize Hip Hop culture and African American youth. In the past few years, prosecutors have tried on numerous occasions to submit rap lyrics as evidence in criminal court proceedings. This is just another example of how our judicial system profiles and marginalizes African American youth. I hope that Blowin’ Up will challenge these larger narratives about Hip Hop culture.

Robertson: Tell us more about your research methods and methodologies. What sources did you find especially useful as you wrote this book?

Lee: I’m an ethnographer, which means that I spend a lot of time hanging out with people and writing about their everyday lives. I spent nearly 5 years hanging out with people at Project Blowed, at concerts, in studios, along Venice Beach as artists hustled their music, and in different spaces where people were making music. This allowed me to really represent people’s lives in an honest, authentic way.

I also used videos that I recorded on a handheld video camera. At first, I started by collecting these videos as a way to give back to MCs who were helping me think about my study. But, as time went on, I realized that the videos were revealing in their own right. I later used these videos to analyze freestyle rap “ciphers” or “cyphas,” one-on-one battles, live stage performances, and other moments of creativity that are typically lost to the researcher who relies on their eyes and ears.  These videos gave me novel ways to analyze creativity. I’m still working through these videos and will be writing a methodological book in the near future about my experiences using them here and elsewhere.

Robertson: Why was it important for you to document aspiring rappers as opposed to established MCs?

Lee: We have tons of books by famous scholars and journalists that document the stories of Hip Hop legends.  And these are great!  But, as I started this study in graduate school, I soon realized that there weren’t a lot of good studies talking about the young, hungry, and aspiring MCs who hadn’t made it, but were in deep pursuit of these goals.  That’s the piece of the story on creative careers that I wanted to highlight and bring front and center.

This is an important story because most aspiring rappers will never ‘blow up.’  What becomes of these rappers?  How does the pursuit of rap dreams shape their lives?  I wanted to really peel beneath the veneer of success and materialism in mainstream Hip Hop and show real people hustling and grinding it out in the hopes of attaining a better life.  This, after all, is a quintessential story about people chasing the American Dream.

Wildchild hustles his mixtapes in South Central LA (Photo: Jooyoung Lee).

Robertson: Can you explain some of the useful tools that aspiring MCs learn during their pursuit of a record deal that could also be used in other fields of work?

Lee: MCs at Project Blowed become expert performers. In fact, one of the early chapters in the book explores all of the little performance skills that people acquire as they learn how to “rock a mic.” In addition to learning how to properly hold a microphone, they also practice their breathing, and become more confident in themselves as live performers.

These skills are very transferrable into other worlds. For one, we’ve seen rappers like Tupac, Queen Latifah, 50 Cent, and Common delve into successful acting careers. Becoming a rapper and learning how to channel all of your pain, joy, and frustrations into a performance is not unlike the skills that we see people use in acting and theater.

Rappers also develop entrepreneurial skills. In the second half of Blowin’ Up, I examine how aspiring rappers organize their lives around trying to get signed to a record label. This is what I call the “Entertainment Hustle,” which involves going out and meeting people, promoting one’s music and brand identity, and collaborating with others to put on a show or record an LP. These are all skills that students learn in the top business schools of the world. And aspiring MCs are putting these skills into action every day. I would love it if higher education would take seriously the idea that aspiring rappers have something important to say and create opportunities for young people to further their education and business acumen.

Robertson: In the book you talk about existential urgency. Can you explain what this is and how it affects aspiring MCs?

Lee: Existential urgency is a temporal concept. I created it to help explain periods in which people feel as if they are running out of time to do something meaningful with their life. It’s something that everybody experiences at one time or another in their lives. It’s also a concept that helps us understand why young Black men from South Central LA would pursue rap dreams in the first place. As I argue in my book, these are young men who have grown up learning firsthand that life is very precarious and uncertain. They have lived in neighborhoods where gang shootings claim lives; they have seen friends and family members injured or killed in such shootings; they have people in their lives who have been incarcerated. All of this contributes to a general feeling that they don’t have time to waste, that the future is uncertain. As a result, they channel all of their energies into pursuing rap dreams, which are vastly more meaningful than other options in front of them.

My goal was also to show that aspiring rappers are not that much different from other young people who pursue dreams of making it in a highly-competitive industry. People sometimes assume they’re different or part of a dysfunctional “culture of poverty” because they are African American youth involved in Hip Hop culture. But, we all feel existential urgency and this makes us concentrate really hard on living the best version of our lives. To me, this is a central part of the human condition.

Robertson: What message, above all else, would you like readers to take away from your book?

Lee: I want readers to walk away from my book understanding that culture is often a safe space for youth growing up in the shadows of street gangs and police harassment.  Some critics have bemoaned violent and misogynistic lyrics in some mainstream Hip Hop music, which has led to a general feeling that Hip Hop culture is bad for ‘at-risk’ youth.

But, I found the opposite: The key figures in Blowin’ Up benefited tremendously from being immersed in Hip Hop culture. It steered them away from gangs and provided them with a safe space where they could interact with other youth around the shared love of Hip Hop music. These were remarkable feats in South Central LA, a historic hotbed of gangs and police interventions—both of which destroy local community life. My hope is that lawmakers and others hear about the findings and consider how they might support local, grassroots organizations that want to support the arts.

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Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson is a graduate student at Fordham University studying hip-hop and African American history. He is especially interested in understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced black communities during the late-1960s. Follow him on Twitter @darry_robertson.