On the surface, hip hop music isn’t something that would warrant serious scholarly investigation.
But when you dig deeper, as Athena Elafros did, it most assuredly does.
“The sociological study of hip hop culture teaches a great deal about culture and society in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world,” said Elafros, assistant professor of sociology at Keuka College
Her doctoral dissertation, Global Music, Local Culture: Popular Music Making in Canada and Greece, was completed at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. It featured 62 interviews, as well as song lyrics, in order to analyze how global cultural forms, such as rap music, are rearticulated within local contexts in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and Athens, Greece.
“Hip hop music began as a predominantly African-American, Puerto Rican and Latino youth culture in the South Bronx in the mid 1970s,” said Elafros, who earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. “The loss of good-paying factory jobs within the South Bronx contributed to the poor social and economic conditions within which hip hop culture developed.”
According to Elafros, in the late 1970s, hip hop became a national phenomenon within the United States with the release of the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. In the late 1980s and 1990s, hip hop culture became a global art form, reaching such countries as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Japan with the spread of popular American media worldwide.
“I completed three case studies for my research, first looking at black popular music in Toronto, including hip hop, rap, reggae, and jazz,” she said. “I conducted 39 interviews in and around Toronto that focused on the process of music and music production. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, my study introduced the concept of location as a supplement to the concepts of position and disposition in understanding how strategies are enacted in cultural fields.”
She also enrolled in a class on how to become a DJ. Hip hop culture also includes the elements of rapping, breakdancing, graffiti, and beatboxing.
The second part of her research took her to Athens, Greece, where she spent six months studying hip hop culture, conducting 23 more interviews. The third case study focused on analyzing the lyrics of Greek-Canadian rapper BZ Jam.
“I wanted to discover how he uses his lyrics to define who he is. I wanted to know how he looks at himself as a Greek and a Canadian, and how these two halves form his hyphenated identity,” said Elafros.
Elafros also attended the Hamilton Music Awards, Canadian Music Week, hip hop karaoke nights, and the Athens Music Forum.
While Elafros attended these concerts and events for entertainment, she was also took time to observe people and their reaction to the music. This method of research—qualitative methods—is something she asks her students to use. She also draws upon her research in her classes.
“Music is truly a universal language,” she said, “and everyone can talk about it. So, I weave music clips into my lessons to make sociology more relatable.”