The world of music is often seen as a direct reflection of life, with stories told of life, death, love, hate, happiness, sorrow and more through song.
Arielle Brown, a senior psychology major from Norco, La., and Cassandra Chaney, associate professor of child and family studies in LSU’s School of Social Work, came together through LSU University College’s Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars program last fall to delve into the realms of hip-hop and R&B music to research just how the sacred institution of motherhood is presented in song lyrics.
The fruits of their research will be presented to the public this month as the LSU Women’s Center, in partnership with the McNair program, will host a presentation titled, “Is Black Motherhood a Marker of Oppression or Empowerment? Hip-Hop and R&B Lessons About ‘Mama,’” on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m. at the LSU African American Cultural Center, located at 3 Union Square. The talk will be open for public dialogue with reception to follow at the LSU Women’s Center, located at 5 Union Square.
This presentation, which is free and open to the public, is the kickoff event for LSU’s Women’s Center as it honors Women’s History Month, which is celebrated throughout March.
“We are always looking for creative ways to collaborate with units on campus to help us further our mission,” said Summer Steib, director of the LSU Women’s Center. “McNair Research Scholars is a great fit in that we share key components of our missions – helping to close achievement gaps. This opportunity is particularly exciting in that it fits perfectly as a kickoff to our 2014 Women’s History Month programming.”
During their presentation, Brown and Chaney will discuss the results of examining 59 hip-hop and R&B songs, some as early as the 1950s, through which they identified four typologies, or themes, relating to black motherhood
“We’ll discuss what those themes are, how they are presented in the songs and how they mirror the contemporary experiences of black mothers,” Chaney said.
Brown added that the presentation will also cover previous literature that focuses on the topic, as well as discussion on how hip-hop and R&B music have changed over time.
Steib said that she hopes those who attend the event come away with a better understanding of the role women have in the musical cultures discussed.
“We receive so many conflicting messages about women and what it means to be a woman in society,” she said. “We often point fingers or make assumptions about what certain groups are saying about women and how they are portraying women, either in empowering or derogatory ways. I think that this presentation will help to illuminate some of the realities about the messages that hip-hop culture is putting forth about women.”
For complete details on Women’s History Month activities and events, visit www.lsu.edu/wc.
Brown said she was directed to Chaney through her previous McNair faculty mentor, Stephen C. Finley, assistant professor in the LSU African & African American Studies Program.
Chaney said that prior to this project, she had already been researching the portrayal of black families in mass media. However, as her research moved forward, she found the focus moving more toward the representation of black motherhood in the hip-hop and R&B musical realms.
“In previous research that was recently published, an assistant professor at Xavier University and I looked at typologies surrounding black masculinity and sensitivity, such as songs where black male artists in R&B and rap talk about being sensitive,” she said. “I found about 78 songs for that study. From that research, I became interested in black motherhood. So, I started a new research project analyzing lyrics related to black motherhood in R&B and hip-hop.”
Brown joined Chaney in the project, assisting with content analysis and identifying the typologies. She also helped to conduct a reliability check to make sure the themes they derived were valid.
Chaney said that the duo’s research uncovered that hip-hop music tends to lean more toward racial and social issues, while R&B music focuses more on emotion, especially love, and on sensitivity. However, she said, their research in both genres tend to hold mothers in a reverent light.
“I’d say, ultimately, this research brings to light the strength of black mothers,” Chaney said. “Whether it’s R&B or hip-hop, I definitely think that our theme really identifies that. Societally, black women are most likely to be heading single-parent households. Of course, there are a lot of challenges associated with that reality. But, at the same time, I think that the song lyrics we analyzed really speaks to the strength of these women, as well as the support that they often times receive in their role as single parents.”
Brown said that the project showed her a side of research with which she was not familiar.
“I’m a psychology major, so most of the methods that we use are quantitative,” she said. “It’s rare that you run across a qualitative experiment or study within psychology, unless it’s morphed with another field. But, working with Dr. Chaney definitely helped me to explore the qualitative analysis in method and research because I was not familiar with it at all. My previous project touched on it a little bit, but not to this degree. With Dr. Chaney, we weren’t just writing and doing the study, we were aiming for publication. I learned how to create a study and write a manuscript, seeking guidelines from journal editor and making suggested revisions. I really learned a lot.”
Admittedly more of an R&B fan than of hip-hop, Brown said that she also gained more of an understanding of hip-hop music while taking a hip-hop and religion class, and how it is often used as a platform for many blacks to outline racial issues in society. She noted that there are different distinctions in hip-hop music through the decades, each focusing on various aspects of the black community.
Brown also said she was surprised by certain aspects of the study, such as a lack of female artists.
“We found that we had less songs from 2013 than we did in the early 2000s,” she said. “That could be another project alone – why were mother-inspired lyrics peaking during the early 2000s?”
Brown said that the study’s findings ultimately defied many stereotypes about both black mothers and hip-hop music.
“A lot of people see the violence involved [in hip-hop] and believe that it isn’t good content,” she said. “But, it’s surprising that when you peel off the surface and look underneath, you find some great messages these hip-hop artists have to say about their mothers, as well as in R&B. It’s very fascinating.”
In addition to conducting the research, Chaney supervised and submitted a manuscript with Brown on their work, which is currently being peer reviewed through the Journal of Hip-Hop Studies. The two also recently presented their research at the National Association of African American Studies annual joint conference, held in February 2014 in Baton Rouge.
Brown, who plans to graduate in May 2014 and is currently preparing for graduate school through the McNair Research Scholars Program, also presented the research before a capacity crowd in the LSU Student Union’s Cotillion Ballroom as part of the 2013 LSU Undergraduate Research Conference, earning first place in the Social Sciences Oral Presentation category.
“This is exactly what Arielle will be doing as a graduate student – presenting at conferences, so this is wonderful experience for her,” Chaney added.
Both Brown and Chaney said that working through the LSU McNair Research Scholars program has been a great experience.
“The McNair program is absolutely amazing,” Brown said. “What it did was make sure I began a new project each semester and that I was linked to a great faculty mentor. Dr. Chaney gave me objectives for the week, and I had to report hours to let the McNair program director know how much time I was putting into my research. Dr. Chaney provided feedback and comments on our research and progress.
“Just being part of McNair and knowing that I’m part of this group of students that love academic research is wonderful. I want to take the time to complete research, sometimes at the loss of studying for classes. This research project motivated me and reminded me of why I love to do this and who I was representing.”
Joseph R. Givens, director of the LSU McNair Research Scholars Program, described Brown as “an exceptional McNair scholar,” adding that he felt her project with Chaney appeals to a broader population.
“This project is unique in the way that it is a project of cross-currents between the sciences and the humanities,” he said. “I’ve watched Arielle explore how her social science research knowledge applies to the spoken word, music and art. If one opens their mind to that kind of experience, it’s an intellectually stimulating experience.”
Chaney said that Brown was the first student she has worked with through the McNair program, and hopes that she will not be the last. She described Brown as “extremely prepared” and as “a complete student not only in terms of coursework, but in the rigors of research and what’s expected of her.”
“This is a phenomenal program,” Brown said of LSU McNair Research Scholars. “The students have a level of seriousness coming into it. They know the expectations are very strict. A student wouldn’t be part of the program if they weren’t willing to meet the demands of the program. I’d most definitely recommend it. I’ve also told my colleagues that they should become McNair faculty mentors.”
Givens stressed the importance of LSU faculty, such as Chaney, who volunteer their time to help undergraduate researchers through the McNair program.
“We try to work the program out to where we can make sure we direct our resources to the students, so they can attend conferences,” he said. “We reach out to faculty who are willing to put a lot of time into a project like this. Dr. Chaney, as well as the other McNair faculty mentors, are a vital part of this program. We couldn’t do this without them and their volunteer efforts. Some McNair programs have to compensate their faculty or they can’t get faculty involved. LSU is a place where we can always find a professor who is willing to help a student.”
Givens said that interdisciplinary projects such as this help keep the LSU McNair Research Scholars program at the forefront of undergraduate research.
“A cutting-edge program yields cutting-edge students who can compete with the global pool of graduate school applicants,” he said. “Graduate school is tough to get into. It’s our responsibility to make sure our students are prepared, that they know what to expect and that they can compete. One way to do that is to encourage projects like this, which shows a higher level of intellectual rigor. And in events like this presentation, Arielle has a responsibility to represent this program to the whole campus. We chose her because we know she’s capable of doing it, but also because she’s worked hard on this research project.
“What I’m hoping is that not only our McNair scholars learn from this, but that LSU students from across all levels who attend the presentation will learn, as well and can see themselves as part of the McNair program. It’s a real exciting opportunity for us.”
About LSU University College Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars
The goal of LSU University College’s Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars program is to increase attainment of Ph.D. degrees by students from underrepresented segments of society. Students participate in undergraduate research projects and are supervised by faculty and research mentors from a variety of disciplines, giving them an abundance of individual time working with experts in their chosen fields.
McNair Research Scholars is funded through the U.S. Department of Education TRIO Programs. LSU has three TRIO Programs – McNair Research Scholars, Student Support Services and Upward Bound – whose combined efforts bring more than $850,000 of annual federal funding for the purpose of supporting postsecondary education opportunities at LSU and in the Baton Rouge community. More information can be found online at www.lsu.edu/mcnair, or by calling 225-578-4321 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About LSU University College
Since 1933, LSU University College has served as the portal of entry for students enrolled at LSU. Academic and personal success is the hallmark of a well-rounded student, and University College provides a foundation of support services for students beginning their academic careers at LSU. University College has two enrollment divisions: The Center for Freshman Year and The Center for Advising and Counseling. In addition, a variety of retention-specific programs, targeting particular student populations, play a significant role in accomplishing our mission. These programs include McNair Research Scholars, Student Support Services and Summer Scholars.