SoundCloud Rap and the Opioid Epidemic: In Defense of a Genre

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

On 3 October 2018 Michael Jones, a relatively obscure rapper within the SoundCloud rap movement known as New Jerzey Devil, was arrested after a joint investigation involving the New York Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Authorities alleged that Jones was responsible for the drug overdose death of Diana Haikova, a 29-year old resident of New York, after providing her with heroin and fentanyl. According to DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt, “This investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use.” 

Of course, the argument that hip hop has glorified the use of illicit substances is hardly new. The genre’s depictions of alcohol and narcotics have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in correlations between media exposure and drug practices. The results of a couple of the more contemporary studies are indicative of the general trend in academic investigations that have almost universally found hip hop particularly deleterious. “Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” Denise Herd, a professor of behavioral sciences, noted when summarizing a 2008 study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, that analyzed popular rap songs between 1979 and 1997, a conclusion that led ABCNEWS to simply declare that “rap music is glamorizing drug use.” Similarly, a 2018 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol determined that “listening to rap music was significantly and positively associated with alcohol use, problematic alcohol use, illicit drug use, and aggressive behaviors.” Although this is just a sampling of the numerous studies that have appeared over the past three decades examining the individual and societal effects resulting from exposure to hip hop, their conclusions reflect an entrenched consensus that the genre possesses an extraordinary capacity to encourage antisocial and destructive behaviors, particularly alcohol and drug addiction. 

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A “Gentler Drug War”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg, a history Ph.D. student at Northwestern University focusing on American foreign relations. He is particularly interested in drug policy and the influence of US political culture on the nation’s efforts to regulate the global drug trade. Michael received a BA from the University of Iowa and an MA from Villanova University. Enjoy!

The DEA Museum

The DEA Museum

While on a recent trip to Washington D.C. to do research for my dissertation on the emotional aesthetics of drug addiction in the early twentieth century, I decided to take a quick detour in an effort to escape the archives for a while. My desire for a little diversion took me to, of all places, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s museum. Given my methodological focus on broken American individuals and families who had experienced the trauma of addiction and publicly disclosed their stories of suffering in various cultural forums, I was immediately struck by an emotional appeal to everyday citizens from the head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, that opened the exhibit. “I need your help,” he pleaded when explaining the immense scope of the drug problem in America, “We have an epidemic in this country and you can help ensure that your family and friends make their own good decisions.” Although Rosenberg assures visitors that the agency is marshaling all possible resources to stem the rising tide of addiction, he admits that “we cannot do this alone. We need you to be a leader in your schools and in your community. Get the word out . . . Help us reduce the desire that fuels these criminal gangs.”

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Drugs on the Small Screen

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg. Enjoy!

It is often said that we are in the midst of a new golden age of television. A remarkable abundance of compelling stories and indelible characters on the small screen has captivated American audiences, fostering new trends in how and where we consume visual media. It seems that everything these days is must-see TV. The small screen’s renaissance has occurred in the wake of cinema’s so-called “death,” in which quality and experimental content has largely yielded to commercial imperatives, consequently impoverishing the cinematic experience once considered transcendent.

Yet while the surfeit of quality television is striking, so too is the prevalence of representations of drug use available for our viewing pleasure. Indeed, drugs of all kinds, licit and illicit, are more than mere props in recent popular programs, but dynamic characters with the capacity to propel and shift plotlines and enrich visual narratives. Below I briefly examine the integral role of drugs in two critically-acclaimed television programs: Mr. Robot and Fear the Walking Dead. Although significantly different in subject matter, each show depicts American society on the cusp of historic change and situates the addict at the center of stories of structural transformation (or disintegration). While this small sampling only begins to reveal the prominent place of drugs in our visual culture, I hope to draw attention to contemporary assumptions about drug addiction embedded in the imagery that reach millions of Americans on numerous platforms.

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