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Symposium Urges Youth Agencies To Be 'Hip' to City Teenagers

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NEW YORK--It became clear that this was no ordinary symposium when the four presenters grabbed their microphones from the dais and began to rap.

"My life is mixed up and needs to be fixed up!'' exclaimed Lamar Gober, 16, of Philadelphia, one of the younger members of the rap group Sounds of Rage.

Some members of the audience wore neckties, others sported hooded sweatshirts with "Flavor'' written across the front. Inner-city teenagers sat among representatives of churches, nonprofit organizations, and federal agencies. The speakers included the rap stars Chubb Rock and Chuck D.

The symposium, held last week at a hotel here, was entitled "Reaching the Hip-Hop Generation.'' Its goal was to give groups and agencies that are trying to reach young people like Lamar a better understanding of the cultural and communication dynamics of their audience.

The symposium was inspired by a market research study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluding that most campaigns to encourage black urban teenagers to avoid drugs, stay in school, protect themselves from AIDS, and engage in other positive behaviors have failed miserably. (See Education Week, June 10, 1992.)

In an effort to develop an effective strategy for reaching members of the "hip-hop'' culture, which grows out of the rap-music scene, the symposium brought the intended recipients of such messages together with the human-service providers, educators, and policymakers who are trying to send them.

On hand to help bridge the gap between the two groups were rappers, music-video producers, filmmakers, a magazine publisher, and entertainment and advertising executives.

Sponsored by Motivational Educational Entertainment, the black-owned research and consulting firm that conducted the study, the event drew support from Robert Wood Johnson, the federal departments of Energy and Health and Human Services, and the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

"I go to hundreds of conferences on the problems of inner-city youth, but we rarely get the insight of youth on their own conditions,'' said Ronald B. Mincy, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

The Rev. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., the assistant director for leadership-development programs at the Congress of National Black Churches, said that the task of reaching members of the hip-hop culture "challenges organizations and institutions to be responsive to a group that is fundamentally counterinstitutional.''

"We have to accept their culture as a valid culture and utilize their media to reach them,'' he said.

'Spiral of Silence'

The market study, released last May, found that black urban teen-agers inhabit a closed subculture that encourages dangerous behavior, threatens to ostracize those who do not conform to its views, and appears almost as alienated from its own African-American traditions as it is from the white mainstream.

"The youth are going around making up their own rules,'' said Chuck D, a member of the prominent rap group Public Enemy.

"Black youth,'' he added, "are not waiting for society to deliver the facts.''

Patrick R. McLaurin, the marketing firm's research director, characterized the hip-hop culture as diverse, differentiated by age and sex, extremely male-centered, and focused on issues related to power and sex.

Members of this culture also tend to receive little positive reinforcement when they do well in school or elsewhere. Their fear of saying something that will cause them to be ostracized, combined with a taboo against judging the actions of others, help to create a "spiral of silence'' that prevents them from trying to positively influence their peers' attitudes toward drugs, sex, and other issues, the study found.

Chubb Rock, who often delivers positive messages in his music, observed that many members of the hip-hop culture want to communicate with their parents, but feel "parents want to preach instead of listen.''

Swanie G. Phillips, a community-outreach coordinator for a clinic at the Center for Research on Adolescent Drug Abuse at Temple University, said African-American adults are mistaken if they think today's black youths are simply going through the same things they did.

Craig Lewis, an 18-year-old from Chicago, concurred.

"In the 50's and 60's, you worried about fist fights. Now, we worry about Uzi [submachine guns],'' he observed. "You worried about syphilis. Now we worry about AIDS.''

"It takes your youth away,'' Mr. Lewis said. "The odds are definitely stacked against us.''

Living 'R-Rated' Lives

The market study and other research efforts have also found that black urban youths are voracious consumers of nonprint media. They typically go to the movies about once a week and live in households where television is watched about 77 hours per week, about 50 percent more than the average for other groups.

Yet the typical member of the hip-hop culture also "is a very sophisticated media consumer,'' easily able to tune out public-service and commercial messages, said Ivan J. Juzang, the marketing firm's president.

A black teenage girl interviewed in one of the firm's videos describes public-service messages as appropriate "for 7-year-olds.'' A teenage boy talks of seeing an anti-drug commercial "and going right back on the street, and putting that stuff up my nose, and thinking about the commercial while I'm doing it.''

Using television to reach these youths is difficult because the medium tends to be "G-rated'' and thus unable to address the harsh reality of their culture, said Alonzo Brown, a senior vice president of Uptown Entertainment who is developing a television situation comedy and feature films aimed at black audiences.

R-rated movies and rap music have the most potential for getting positive messages across, participants agreed.

Racing Madison Avenue

But however effective they are, public-service campaigns account for just a small fraction of the messages bombarding young people, and all the media need to become more sensitive to their impact on urban youths, several participants said.

They also expressed concern that their findings on how to reach the hip-hop culture also could be used to help corporations further exploit the black-youth market to sell such products as malt liquor and tobacco.

"We want to know that we are not being used,'' said Lumumba Bandele, a 21-year-old member of a rap group.

But since corporations will do their own research anyway, Mr. Juzang said, at least the symposium can make the data available to nonprofit and other groups that probably would not do such research otherwise.

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