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

June 14, 2016

By Don McSwiney, University of Calgary Newsletter |

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.”

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