Why you should care

Because, some argue, cities could use this alternative way to deter youth from gang violence.

Only an academic would call himself a “hip-hop practitioner,” and yet Jooyoung Lee isn’t your typical prof. For nearly five years, Lee interviewed dozens of aspiring rappers in South Central Los Angeles, often at a weekly open mic where young Black men sought a creative alternative to gang life.

No, Lee doesn’t rap himself. But the assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, affectionately nicknamed “Joocey” by his LA interview subjects, held his own while working part-time as a DJ in Berkeley, California, where he also learned how to pop and hip-hop dance from a street performer named Tron. As Lee explains in this edited conversation, those lessons came in handy during the ethnographic fieldwork that influenced his new book, Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.

OZY: What got you interested in this project?

Jooyoung Lee: I’ve been a fan of hip-hop culture since I was a kid and I came into the scene as a hip-hop dancer. It was kind of like serendipity: I was just starting off graduate school for my Ph.D. at UCLA, and I was enrolled in an ethnography class, and my first assignment was to find a field site to go every week and hang out and write about what was going on. I happened to bump into an old friend of mine, an emcee, who started talking about an open mic, which he described as this mystical, almost legendary training ground for emcees. I immediately fell in love with it.

Hip-hop was a way to be respected in the streets and gave them an exemption from the social pressures and an acceptable way out.

Jooyoung Lee

OZY: How did your research scope change as you spent more time with these men?

J.L.: If I had done a project that lasted just two years, which some people do and they’re great studies, I would have had a totally different understanding of what hip-hop meant to these young men. It would have artificially frozen hip-hop culture in this one period of their lives where they were trying to become the best and most respected emcees in the scene. It showed me that studies based on longitudinal research or long-term data collection give really important insights into people’s biographies and trajectories and how they change over time.

Some people started performing in other venues or collaborating with producers, sound engineers, promoters and a whole cast of characters connected to the music industry outside the open mic. They were focusing on their music and saw a number of different possibilities in front of them.

OZY: You argue that hip-hop came to represent a path to upward mobility and validation — pillars of the American Dream, which some say is dead. How did these men reconcile their hope, knowing that few would actually make it?

J.L.: Many of them had experience working in the low-wage service economy and had experienced the limits of that world, and they had also experienced the limits of the path of gangs in the area. So for many of them it was a very rational decision to pursue this path. At this point in their lives they reconciled the tension by saying, “This is probably my one opportunity to really make something out of this career, and if it doesn’t pan out I can go to this other stuff, but something will happen along the way that will allow me to make the music.”

OZY: What’s a key policy takeaway of your findings?

J.L.: That hip-hop is a creative alternative to the gang life. I think there are still people out there who look at hip-hop music and they see a world where young Black men are learning negative values about misogyny and violence or braggadocio and see it as a very poisonous influence on the lives and minds of young people. But I see it as the opposite. Hip-hop was a way to be respected in the streets and gave them an exemption from the social pressures and an acceptable way out.

If cities want to get serious about curbing gang violence, it’s not just about punishing youth. I see hip-hop and other kinds of art as a tremendous outlet that could create conditions to deter young people from going down those paths. I hope policymakers embrace alternative ways for deterring youth from gang violence. This method of just locking people up and getting tough isn’t working.

OZY: You acknowledge being privileged as a Korean-American at a research university. Instead of writing about being an “insider” or “outsider” you discuss showing cultural competency through being “down.” Explain the difference.

J.L.: There’s a tendency to talk about an ethnographer’s relationship to people in the field as a process of getting “in,” and people write about it as if they cross some kind of threshold and suddenly become a local member of a scene. And I always found that language kind of problematic, mostly because the history of ethnography is one where folks who are privileged study folks who are in disadvantaged neighborhoods and situations.

I thought about coming “down” as an alternative. One night this crew of cars full of krump dancers pulled up, and Tick-a-Lott, a street performer from Compton who’s very beloved in the scene, starts battling them. Most of the people didn’t know I was a dancer at the time, and at one point Tick-a-Lott turned to me and said I had to help him defend the block. I jumped into the circle and started dancing, and a lot of people saw me in a different light — someone not just studying the scene but bringing something to the table and a richer understanding of hip-hop culture.

OZY: Do you still dance?

J.L.: A little bit. Toronto actually has a very rich popping scene, which was really cool for me, coming from LA. I was at a wedding recently, in Barrie, Ontario, and that became the time I busted out. At one point they started playing Funkadelic and Zapp & Roger, and as a popper, any time I hear that bass line it’s almost like my body becomes possessed.

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