The way in which individuals shape their social identities is coded according to the texts that the media produces for the increasingly segmented audiences along the lines of race and gender (Hall 2007, p.248). In other words, the media plays a huge role in defining social realities. Issues to do with underrepresentation and stereotyping are still a continuing concern within popular culture. The mass appeal of music can be attributed to the proliferation of networks and the increasingly easy access of the videos to the public. Popular music videos attest to the fact that the images disseminated through them actively shape the societies (Hall 1980, p.67). Black rap music videos portray the media representation of the Black society highlighting the stereotypes associated with the black race that eventually shape how blacks understand their racial identity. Using the music video Locked Up by Akon featuring Styles P, this paper aims at discussing the significance of race and racial representation in the media with the disseminated video serving as the central point of reference.
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The video portrays the images of mostly black people in normal daily activities such as laundry. A black couple is hustling to sell a cell phone to passersby on the pavement while inside a laundry shop where two women are attending to do their laundry. A young black man (Akon) enters in his usual dealing unaware that the people dressed as ‘friends’ around him have set a trap upon him. The other young black man,(Styles P.) is in a prison bus on his way from the court where he has been sent to prison without the chance of bail for attempted murder. While in prison, the two characters are regretting the deeds that led them to prison, as well as how they would have done things differently to avoid being incarcerated. They look forward to the day they will be out of prison to start their lives once again in a different manner.
In response to the slow rate of racial reform in the United States during the 1970s, the Critical Race Theory (CRT) was developed (Ashcraft, & Flores 2000, p.5). A central argument of the theory is that racism is an ordinary fact of American life. Much of the analysis of this theory is a combination of legal, feminist, multicultural, political, social and philosophical approaches (Booker 2003, p.212). Much as the media tries to portray the American society as blind to the aspects of racialism by emphasizing on racial harmony, affluence and individual mobility, this is not the fact of life held by many African Americans. The concept of the American dream that has been pushed for decades through the media advocates for the racial invisibility, racial interaction that emphasize individualism. However, this is not the reality of the situation, as emphasized by the Critical race theory. The roles accorded to the Black men and women by the media depict the real racial stereotypes accorded by society.
According to Hall (2007), white became synonymous with civilization, while black was associated with the backwardness and underdevelopment. In such systems, blacks are “reduced to the signifiers of physical difference” (p. 249). These representations still influence the representations of different races in the media with the black race being the culprit in this case. For instance, the stereotype of the happy slave, the noble savage and the entertainer still shape the representations of the black race in the media. In Akon and Styles P’s video, the stereotype of the happy slave comes back to life through the portrayal of the Black prisoners who seem comfortable with the lack of freedom their situation accords them. The rapper (Styles P) claims that by smoking a stick of haze “Cannabis”, he is capable of dealing with and managing the stress of being incarcerated.
The rapid growth of music videos and their increasing accessibility has a distinct influence on popular culture (Brooker 2003, p.214). There are questions that arise regarding the messages that are conveyed through the images portrayed in these music videos. This is with regard to their portrayal of the issues of culture, race and ethnicity. The issues of representation, as well as stereotyping, frame the questions. To what extent does the video represent members of diverse cultures and races? What stereotypes does the video attach or associate with a given group of people and to what extent do they hold true?
Despite the fact that music videos promote the audio recordings of the song, they have proved, at many times, to do more than just that. Through the creativity of their narratives, visual images and the appeal of the artists who are in most cases social icons, music videos end up conveying messages about the roles, characteristics and the worldviews of individuals, groups of people as well as different races and cultures. Considering that popular American music cuts across demographic groups and cultures, many researchers have been concerned with the racial/ ethnic socialization functions of music videos (Dines,& Humez 2003, p.6). For instance, the music video for the song Locked Up by Akon and Styles P uploaded on YouTube has so far over twenty-five million views. This shows that, for the video to have such views, its message must have reached various groups of people all over the world. Many meanings are in place so far regarding the images that the video depicts. These meanings form what makes sense to the viewer about the representation of the African American youths as well as the stereotypes associated with the entire race.
With most of the consumers of popular music videos being youths and middle-aged people, the effects that music videos are bound to have in the society can be long-lasting (Media Campaign 2002). Inexperienced youths might find themselves copying what the idolized stars in the music videos uphold with regard to life (Hunt 2005, p.65). The language used in the music lyrics of popular hit songs has shaped the popular cultures for a long period with words drawn from such lyrics and adopted in real-life situations. The controversial terminology’ Nigger’ or in slang ‘nigga’ has been a common word in Black music lyrics and has been used as a matter of fact in Akon and Style P’s song lyrics.
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With its racial connotations, people face judgment when they employ it in their conversations according to their race. For instance, a black person can use the terminology freely, referring to his folks and the term does not have the racial connotation at that point in time. However, if another person who is not of the Black race uses the term either in song lyrics or in real-life conversations, there is high probability of raising heated controversies and criticism, and that person is accused of using racial sentiments. In the music video by Akon and Styles P, the latter repeatedly uses the word to refer to his folks in similar conditions in prison.
As it is in other genres, race linked stereotypes are also common in music videos. Despite the running of music videos for a relatively shorter period compared to other videos such as movies and TV episodes, a lot can be deduced from the images disseminated through the medium within such a short period. The racial stereotypes associated with the Black race are common even in the music videos produced by the blacks themselves. These stereotypes include the stereotype of the ranting black man and woman as well as the depiction of extreme hustling even through illegal means such as drug trafficking and crime.
In the music video by Akon and Styles P, the two young black men end up being locked up in prison for adopting such risky lifestyles of drugs and crime. In fact, Styles P confirms, “Drug money to rap money” (Akon 2009, Verse 1) associated with black men and women. This sort of lifestyles (Snead 2004, p.59) has characterized rap music and the Basketball sport, which are mostly associated with blacks. These stereotypes associated with the black race have been pushed forward and strengthened to a large extent through music videos.
One fascinating thing highlighted in this music video is the attitude of the Black race towards the white folks. The young drug peddler does not suspect his fellow black folks who are undercover cops, but the moment he sees white men rushing towards him, he turns to the defensive and tries to escape. The music is mostly comprised of black characters and a few white characters that are mostly police officers. Another important and significant racial stereotype of the Black community is evident at this point. The relationship of a member of the black community and a white police officer is marked with considerable amounts of tension. There is tension between the white and the Black race as displayed through the attitude of the Black man to the white cops. The black people are the wrongdoers as portrayed in this video while the white man is the law enforcer.
While the aspect of diversity varies along the lines of the genres in music videos, it is evident that majority of the characters and artists in hip-hop music videos are black while those in the country and rock music are white (Holtzman 2000, p.23). Levels of violence, depictions of harsh living conditions and extreme sexuality are more associated with rap music videos that the others. For instance in Akon and Styles P’s music video, the undercover cops pretending to be engrossed in a domestic row and even attempting to sell a cell phone for five dollars does not raise the concern of the passersby considering that it is not a spectacle worthy of any attention. The ‘nagging wife’ and the ‘broke husband’ are a living reality within the black race as portrayed through the music video.
Some aspects of the black race as represented in the media tend to be missing while the portrayal of others seems to be exaggerated as depicted in the music video. With the most discussed pattern being the association of the black male with a crime or the bad boy attitude, blacks even those doing lucrative things are portrayed as dangerous and threatening to the others. A good example is whereby hip-hop music being a lucrative deed has been correlated with gang raids, violence, and other vices such as the usage of drugs. In the music video, the rapper Styles P draws the likely correlation between drug money and rap money. The blacks have adopted some of these aspects and propagated by themselves to exaggerate the culture of crime that identifies with the music genre.
A ‘problem’ frame is in most cases associated with the black race representation in the media as evidenced in the music video by Akon and Styles P. This is not only due to the distortions in the media representation of the black race but also due to the patterns that characterize their sympathetic and accurate portrayals (Hall 2007, p.4). This ‘problem’ frame has shaped the American viewership to the extent that a consumer of the American media cannot help drawing connections between the black race and problems. In the music video, almost all the characters are in problems either with themselves or with the authorities. The fact that the music video is a product of black artistes implies that the problem frame has been assimilated in the group and is no longer a stereotype help against it by other races.
The media “manufactures a network of understanding that informs us ‘how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work” (Hall 2007, p.11). Hall adds that people construct their understandings within an ideology, which enables them to make sense of their surroundings. The ideologies are naturalized. As a result, they are masked as common sense (Wilson, & Gutierrez 1985, p. 56). This claim maintains that institutional representations lead us to classify society in a system of categorizations of ‘race’ (Holtzman 2000, p.56). Hall goes ahead to conclude, “These categorizations are grounded in a series of alleged essential characteristics that strengthen such racial representations further” (2007, p.253). For instance, in western societies, a dominant white ideology has naturalized itself to the extent that it has declared itself ‘invisible’.
It, however, exerts an excessive and pervasive controlling force on other existing ideologies. Hall claims that “the white-eye” is always outside the frame- but seeing and positioning everything within it” (p. 14). The ideology of white dominance is evident in Akon and Styles P’s music video, however, unconsciously. The black characters view themselves from the background of the white ideology. The black society understands the conditions and their facts of life when they compare themselves to the dominant whites (Snead 2004, p.34). However indirectly, the black race is constantly subordinated to the white race regardless of whether it is from its own perspectives or those of the whites.
Race and racial presentations in the media, as the paper reveals, influence the societal ideologies as well as the realities of the people. Music videos being a popular media exert a considerable influence in society as far as race and racialism are concerned (Wilson, & Gutierrez, 1985, p.45). Racial stereotypes are disseminated and strengthened through the media as evidenced in the music video Locked Up by Akon and Styles P. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the ideology of white dominance especially in the Western societies still influence the race representations in the media. Gender roles attributed to a given race are also conveyed through the media such as music videos.
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