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Black man's world?

Culture | Hip hop doesn't just dominate urban youth culture; it's also the music of choice attracting suburban white-and Christian-kids

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Justin Klein, 23, is dressed like many other white residents of affluent St. Louis suburbs: blue jeans, a pair of tan Timberlands, and a black Ecko sweatshirt. But he also wears a blue bandana and loves to freestyle rap.

His best friend Jonathan White, also 23, looks typical as well in his blue jeans, crisp polo shirt, and black leather jacket. But his life is so immersed in hip hop that he dropped out of college after his sophomore year and moved to Las Vegas for private instruction in the art of hip-hop dance.

The musical tastes of Mr. White and Mr. Klein are neither unusual nor uncommon. Hip hop rules urban youth culture in America-but it is also wildly popular among white suburban kids. Forbes reported that whites purchase nearly 80 percent of all music produced by the $1.5 billion hip-hop industry. Hip hop, not rock, is king in a lot of affluent areas where many suburban kids are bored and privately live highly self-sabotaging lives.

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If Christians want to know the pulse of American culture, they should listen to hip hop, says Mr. Klein, who met Mr. White at Parkway West High School, part of a school district where the average family income is $95,704. They became close friends later in a youth program at Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church and realized they both had from childhood a love for hip hop.

Jonathan White's hip-hop journey began in a neighborhood with African-Americans in north St. Louis. Captivated by the music of Young M.C., he later embraced Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop, 2 Pac, Notorious BIG, Puff Daddy, Master P, and DMX. When Jonathan at age 9 moved to suburban Ballwin, Mo., which has an African-American population of 1.86 percent, he brought his love for hip hop with him.

Justin Klein by the third grade was rapping in class and on the playground. In high school he befriended African-Americans, mostly bused in from St. Louis city as part of a desegregation program, and would invite them over to spend weekends at his house: "The neighbors would give me looks like 'What's this black kid doing in our neighborhood?'"

Bakari Kitwana, author of Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, notes that some are immersed in black youth culture and are personally at ease with African-Americans. Many white hip-hop fans, though, have no black friends but still practice hip-hop arts, including dancing and rapping.

For suburban kids living a mundane, materialistic, consumer-oriented existence, hip hop gives their lives flavor-materialism plus adventure.

Mr. Klein says white kids generally love hip hop because it reflects "the vices of our culture like materialism and hypersexuality." They listen to hip hop while smoking blunts (a cigar stuffed with marijuana instead of tobacco) and getting drunk because the music "adds an ambience that you're not going to get simply sitting in your boring West County environment smoking a blunt and drinking beer."

Mr. Klein knows this firsthand. Before becoming a Christian as a high-school senior, he said he "lived like the rap songs that were popular in high school. Selling drugs, womanizing, idolatry in all its popular forms, sex, materialism, pride, etc." With hip hop, suburban kids can now do those things with a new and exciting cultural identity-flashing gang signs or wearing their pants below the waist.

A recent Manhattan Institute study by Jay Greene examined the shared lifestyles of urban and suburban kids. Mr. Greene reports that urban and suburban high schools are virtually identical in terms of drug use and sexual activity. According to the report, two-thirds of all suburban and urban 12th-graders have had sex-and most of them have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship.

Alcohol and drug use follow similar patterns. Mr. Greene reports that 63 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 57 percent of urban 12th-graders drink without family members present. About four out of 10 12th-graders, in both urban and suburban schools, have used illegal drugs. About 20 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 13 percent of urban 12th-graders have driven while high on drugs.

A key difference in this shared lifestyle is that white suburban kids often have opportunities to opt out of situations in which many lower-income kids see themselves trapped. Last month Proof, an Eminem protégé whose real name was Deshaun Holton, died at age 32 after being shot in the head during a bar fight in Detroit. Suburban white kids hear about that report but don't see the same thing happening to them; the inner-city perspective is often different.

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