Is rap music to blame for the UK riots?

In an article by The Mirror, one journalist asks whether rap music is to blame for the recent UK riots.  The journalist states “I would ban the broadcasting of poisonous rap”. This is perhaps not a surprising response, given the current state of moral panic in which the UK finds itself.

It is not the first time that debates are evoked about whether certain kinds of music can influence young people and spark negative behaviour (North & Hargreaves, 2008). In 1985, two young men tried to commit suicide (one of them succeeded) after listening to Judas Priest. In the aftermath, the men’s parents sued Judas Priest for having included subliminal messages in their songs, which they argued the young men had acted upon. The law suit was later dismissed. And history goes much further back than that, even the Ancient Greeks discussed whether certain music could have negative effects on children (North & Hargreaves, 2008).

The one major aspect to consider is cause and effect. It may be that many young people involved in petty crime listen to rap and hiphop, but can we be certain that it is the music that influence them to commit these crimes? An analogy would be the high correlation between people visiting their doctor and being off work due to sickness. But it would be unwise to argue that people are staying at home because they went to their doctors – i.e., that the visit to the doctor caused it. There are common underlying factors as to why they went to the doctor and why they stayed at home (virus, bacterial infections, etc).

In terms of rap music, studies have shown that rap fans exhibit more aggression and distrust, and that those who enjoy rebellious music videos also score higher on measures of reactive rebelliousness (Robinson, Weaver & Zillman 1996; Rubin, West & Mitchell 2001). A study of exposure to rap videos (Wingood et al 2003) showed that those with high exposure experienced higher unemployment and less parental monitoring. They were also more likely to hit a teacher and more likely to get arrested during a 12 month follow-up period.

While many studies show clear statistical relationships between rap music and crime, there seems to be underlying factors that can explain the relationship – which means that the idea of rap music causing crime is not correct. Some of these underlying factors shown in studies of “problem music” (rap, heavy metal) are:

– psychoticism (North, Desborough & Skarstein, 2005)

– ethnicity (Epstein, Pratto & Skipper, 1990)

– (lack of) parental control (Singer, Levine & Jou, 1993)

– sensation seeking & negative family relationships (Arnett 1992)

– gender (Took & Weiss, 1994)

Studies also show that rap fans don’t perceive links between the music and their behaviour, but instead view the music as mirroring their lifestyle (Gardstrom, 1999).

It is therefore possible that these underlying factors somehow cause liking for rap music (which deals with themes of victimization and crime) as well as the crime itself.

Any calls for censorship and banning of certain genres of music can be understood as a knee-jerk reaction to a difficult situation where many are looking for someone/something to blame. We must not fall into the trap of spreading stereotypical assumptions. Instead, music researchers need to compile and communicate the more complex picture, based on actual academic research – even if this means that journalists get a more difficult job when they are pulling together their story on the topic.



Arnett, J. (1992). The soundtrack of recklessness: musical preferences and reckless behaviour among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7, 313-331

Epstein, J., Pratto, D., & Skipper, J. (1990). Teenagers, behavioural problems and preferences for heavy metal and rap music: a case study of a Southern middle school. Deviant Behaviour, 11, 381-394

Gardstrom, S.C. (1999). Music exposure and criminal behaviour: perceptions of juvenile offenders. Journal of Music Therapy, 36, 207-221

North, A.C., Desborough, L., & Skarstein, L, (2005). Musical preferences, deviance, and attitudes towards celebrities. Personality and Individual Differences, 383, 1903-1914

North, A., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2008). The social and applied psychology of music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, T.O., Weaver, J.B., & Zillman, D. (1996). Exploring the relation between personality and the appreciation of rock music. Psychological Reports, 87, 259-269

Rubin, A.M., West, D.V., & Mitchell, W.S. (2001). Differences in aggression, attitudes toward women, and distrust as reflected in popular music preferences. Media Psychology, 3, 25-42

Took, K.J., & Weiss, D.S. (1994). The relationship between heavy metal and rap music and adolescent turmoil: real or abstract? Adolescence, 29, 613-623

Singer, S.I., Levine, M., & Jou, S. (1993). Heavy metal music preference, delinquent friends, social control and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30, 317-329

Wingood, G.M., DiClemente, R.J., Bernhardt, J.M., Harrington, K., Davies, S.L., Robillard, A., & Hook, E.W. (2003). A prospective study of exposure to rap music videos and African American female adolescents’ health. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 437-439


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