By: Cassandra Ogbevire, Masters Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education
“Once formed, an identity furnishes individuals with a historical sense of who they have been, a meaningful sense of who they are now, and a sense of who they might become in the future.” -James Marcia, PhD
Music imitates life.
Music refreshes the soul.
Music reveals our unspoken fears.
Can you imagine a world without music? I can’t. How would you soothe a crying baby? How would you express your love to someone special? How would you celebrate a special occasion? Music is deeply ingrained in our culture and plays a critical role in shaping one’s identity. As a result, there has been increased interest to explore how music influences adolescent development. The development of adolescent identity is very complex, especially since this period is characterized with great uncertainty. Hip-Hop can shed light on how an adolescent’s choices can influence his or her sense of identity.
During my own adolescent years, Hip-Hop helped me make sense of who I am. Similarly, over the years I have seen its positive impact among other adolescents and young adults. As a genre, Hip-Hop has embraced the kind of storytelling that provides insight into the shaping of identity for adolescents and young adults.
Utilizing Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, James Marcia, a renowned human development psychologist, developed four “Identity Statuses of Psychological Identity Development.” Based on the notion that one’s identity is determined by an individual’s choice during a crisis or commitment, the stages include:
1) Identification Diffusion: Having a difficult time making a commitment.
2) Foreclosure: Confirming to expectations of others.
3) Moratorium: Experiencing a crisis and exploring different commitments.
4) Achievement: Committed to a sense of identity after overcoming an identity crisis.
It is important to note that identity statuses are not permanent and that a traumatic life event can shift an individual to a different identity status. According to Marcia, the adolescent psychological identity development process typically occurs during the ages of 18-22 years old but the identity achievement status can be reached many years after adolescence. It is during these statues, an individual will explore and adopt different beliefs and values that might cause him or her to re-examine their understanding of the world.
From his 1998 album, “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood”, DMX’s “Slippin’” is an example of an individual embarking on the adolescent journey toward the psychological identity status of identity achievement. DMX, born Earl Simmons, is known to be one of the most intense and hardcore Hip-Hop artists, as demonstrated by his blunt and raw emotional lyrics. DMX has shared in many interviews that his aggressive nature was a result of enduring significant trauma (CDC: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)) at a young age and learning how to survive on his own by any means necessary. At the time DMX wrote “Slippin’,” he was in his late twenties.
In verse one, DMX reflects on his adverse childhood experiences:
Baggin' n---- when I caught a buzz For thinking about how short I was Going too fast it wouldn't last but yo I couldn't tell Group homes & institutions, prepare my a-- for jail They put me in a situation forcin' me to be a man When I was just learnin' to stand without a helpin' hand Damn, was it my fault, somethin' I did To make a father leave his first kid at 7 doin' my first bid? Back on the scene at 14 with a scheme To get more cream than I'd ever seen in a dream And by all means I will be living high off the hog And I never gave a f--- about much but my dog That's my only mother----- I had offered my last Just another little n--- headed nowhere fast
In the chorus, DMX acknowledges how life’s challenges have become barriers to his success:
Ay yo I'm slippin' I'm fallin' I can't get up Ay yo I'm slippin' I'm fallin' I can't get up Ay yo I'm slippin' I'm fallin' I gots to get up Get me back on my feet so I can tear s--- up!
In verse two, DMX reflects on one of his darkest moments which led him on a destructive path as a result of abusing drugs:
Used to get high just to get by used to have to puff my L In the morning before I get fly I ate something a couple of forties made me hate somethin' I did some coke now I'm ready to take something 3 years later showing signs of stress Didn't keep my hair cut or give a f---- how I dressed I'm possessed by the darker side livin' the cruddy life S--- like this kept a n--- with a bloody knife Wanna make records but I'm f---- it up I'm slippin' I'm fallin' I can't get up
In the final verse, DMX has a turning point in which he acknowledges the detrimental effects of his destructive behavior and makes a conscious decision to change for the better, especially for his son:
Wasn't long before I hit rock bottom N-- talking s--- like damn look how that rock got him Open like a window no more Indo look at a video Sayin' to myself that could've been yo a-- on the TV Believe me it could be done, something's got to give It's got to change cause I've got a son I've got to do the right thing for shorty And that means no more getting high drinking forties
In “Slippin’,” DMX illustrates “Identity Achievement” by actively exploring his commitment to preserving despite encountering obstacles that might influence him to go back to his old ways. During identity achievement, adolescents are able to prioritize their responsibilities since they have made a strong commitment to a particular set of beliefs and values that will ensure positive life outcomes in the future. More importantly, adolescents will have a “truer sense of self.” As a result of experiencing identity achievement, an adolescent will be able to take stance on different issues, since he or she has more insight about their weaknesses and strengths.
Though Hip-Hop is often characterized as violent and misogynistic, songs like “Slippin’” show that, like other musical genres, Hip-Hop can be an empowering tool for exploring stages of adolescent identity development in a nuanced, practical, and meaningful way.
Cassandra Ogbevire is a 2nd year M.S.Ed candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Spelman College with Honors in 2010, she worked primarily with youth of color through interventional research projects, education, and social services. Cassandra is interested in the intersection of education and mental health to ensure the development of positive self-identity and help-seeking behavior among students of color. She currently resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.