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Girls Becoming Women at the Margins:

Hip-Hop Culture as a Factor in the Identity of African American Adolescent Girls and Young Women

-Breai Mason

In recent years, the medical community has grown increasingly interested in the role of religion and spirituality in the overall well-being of the whole person. Significant areas, however, have remained unaddressed: First, although the biomedical community has become more and more concerned with developing what is referred to as "culturally competent care"-care that is responsive to patients' cultural backgrounds-few programs in medicine and spirituality have examined the importance of particular religious traditions as integral parts of specific cultural systems, or how these multi-faceted systems have a bearing on people's experience of health-care in the United States. The tendency, instead, has been to favor an understanding of "spirituality" as a generic phenomenon. This tendency is often informed by unexamined biases emerging out of popular culture. Yet in reality, every spiritual tradition has specific teachings, practices, and rituals to facilitate healing. The experience of spirituality is also contingent on the age of the individual.

Second, although the medical community has dedicated a growing attention to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), little of this attention has been directed at such practices as they are specifically defined and used by immigrant and racial-ethnic minority groups in the United States. However, just as the religious landscape of the country has become increasingly complex, as has been shown by Harvard's Pluralism Project, the landscape of healing practices has become equally pluralistic due to the same rich cultural diversity.

Moreover, much of the epidemiological literature on the use of CAM has focused on adult populations, although an emerging literature is beginning to look at CAM use in pediatric populations. In 1999, a search of Medline, Embase, CISCOM, and Cochrane Library, together with a related review of over 100 papers looking for surveys on CAM use by children below the age of 18 years, yielded eleven surveys. Variations in the definitions of CAM used, in the study populations, in the periods of time represented, and in the methodologies made it difficult for the authors to draw firm conclusions. Nevertheless, the resulting data indicated that a large proportion of children use some form of CAM. Yet one survey suggested that only about 50% of CAM users tell their physician about it. Even fewer studies have looked at the experience of older adolescents and young adults, and those that have, have not focused on the experience of subjects in this age group in communities of color. Nor have these studies focused on the experience of young women in this age group.

This study is examining intersections and relationships between the culture of hip-hop and 1) the formation of identity of young Black women, 2) these young women's experience of spirituality, and 3) these young women's understanding of health and the pursuit of health. The background of this study lies in the historic presence of music in the black community as a means of spiritual strength and a vehicle for identity formation and expression. Prominent scholars in the field of African American studies have addressed this issue as it relates to different periods in African American history. Al Raboteau, for example, has examined slave songs as a window into the consciousness of enslaved Africans in America. Cornel West identifies a progression from slave songs to gospel, the blues and jazz, as parallel movements chronicling the religious consciousness of African America people. Hip-hop is the latest movement on that chain.

By focusing on the hip-hop movement as a formative spiritual and cultural influence in the lives of older adolescent girls and young women of color in the Boston area, this project will illuminate the value systems and related behavior patterns of the study group. By examining what these young women do, in the pursuit of health as they understand it, we will come to a clearer understanding of CAM in this context. By focusing on the generally overlooked, yet highly influential aspect of hip-hop culture these young women's lives, this study will enable practitioners working for the health and welfare of these communities to deepen and refine their understanding of this part of their patient population. Although the girls and young women may come from different cultures of origin, they come together in the culture of hip-hop.

We hope to learn how they understand and treat their bodies, minds, and spirits, in the attempt to grow into womanhood, given the prescriptions of hip-hop culture. Do they, for example, identify a connection between their involvement with hip-hop culture and music, and spirituality and complementary healing practices? Specifically, attention will be paid to the use of language generally associated with religious/spiritual ideas and practices, in their discussion of music and the culture surrounding it. We will be looking at the degree to which the young women describe themselves as feeling justified or motivated to action by messages in the lyrics, or by other aspects of hip-hop. Such connections between the ethics promoted by hip-hop and life choices made by study subjects will provide pilot data on ways in which African-descended women, between the ages of 18 and 22 apply ideals espoused in hip-hop music to their own lives, whether to their health or their detriment.



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