Lewis Kennedy (Independent Scholar, UK)

‘I grew up in Streatham’: Rap, Reactions, Comments, and Capital on YouTube [BACK]


YouTube offers unmatched variety for those seeking to experience music artefacts in the early twenty-first century. Alongside the range and scale of music accessible (much of it uploaded without the copyright holder’s permission), the platform affords various methods of presentation: music videos, pro- and amateur-shot live footage, audio over a fixed-image, and fan-made compilations (to name only a few). In a phenomenon seemingly native to YouTube, users upload videos of themselves watching other videos while reacting in real-time, often proffering commentary or critique and inviting viewers to do the same in the comment section. These ‘reaction videos’ position music within a discourse between reactor and musical artefact, reactor and viewer(s), as well as between viewer and musical artefact. As such, reaction videos provide a site for the accrual, demonstration, and exchange of distinct forms of mundane subcultural capital (Thornton 1995; Kahn-Harris 2007). Dave’s single ‘Streatham’ (Psychodrama, 2019) discusses the British rapper’s upbringing in the titular district, complete with multiple references and allusions to South London. Despite or perhaps because of its London-centric content, the song’s music video has become a frequent subject for a sub-set of reaction videos in which Americans react to British hip-hop. With reactors commonly confessing a lack of prior knowledge about the artist, such videos allow reactors to demonstrate their level of general subcultural capital (knowledge of rap) while simultaneously allowing commenters to demonstrate their level of specific subcultural capital (knowledge of the artist and city). Building upon research on British rap (Bramwell 2015; Adams 2019) and media intertextuality (Vernallis 2013), this paper uses ‘Streatham’ as a case study of the various forms of subcultural capital exchange afforded by reaction videos. The paper seeks to investigate further the nature of capital in online fandom and the experience of music artefacts in the twenty-first century.

Bio: Dr Lewis F. Kennedy is a musicologist and independent scholar based in Hull (UK). He is the current Treasurer and Membership Officer of the International Society for Metal Music Studies, and recently co-edited the ‘Metal & Musicology’ special issue of Metal Music Studies (2019). Forthcoming publications include book chapters on NWOAHM and notions of heritage(-making) in metal/hardcore historiography, an ethnography of the Hull metal/hardcore scene, and a study of the interplay between aidoru and metal themes in the lyrics of Babymetal.

6 thoughts on “Lewis Kennedy (Independent Scholar, UK)”

  1. Thanks for the talk! Sound quality wasn’t bad enough to mess with the content. 😉

    I don’t really have a question (it’s the typical “not-a-question-but-a-comment”-trope), but I was reminded of a version of the expert-reacts-to-experts that I don’t really think works very well, but is quite popular here in Norway. It is the Norwegian hip hop-channel YLTV who makes videos of british and american rappers reacting to scandinavian rap music videos. https://www.youtube.com/user/YoungLmixtapes

    To make a question out of it, maybe – could the ritualisation of these types of videos as well as the type of algorithms that spread the videos to viewers (encouraging ritualisation and clickbait and repetition) perhaps take away from the quality of rap dissemination? Particularly in the way it encourages a focus on a few very specific features (like “catching bars”)?

    1. Thanks Kjell Andreas, great ‘not-a-question-but-a-comment’! Yes, the ritualistic nature of these videos has a significant impact on both the artists/artefacts being disseminated and discussed, as well as specific focuses on things like perceived lyrical prowess. Many (rap) reaction channels tend to react to the same videos – partly a result of commenter suggestions and partly, it would seem, to stay relevant – so the pool of artists being reacted to is relatively shallow, as it were. Despite the variety of available artefacts it’s notable how many ‘Fire in the Booth’ performances are the subject of reaction videos, and those reactions are usually focused on ‘catching bars’. Those focuses, plus almost exclusively positive responses to songs/artists and the penchant for exaggerated gestures, make these videos an interesting case study in ‘rap dissemination’, I think. Do these videos function as something akin to record reviews by critics? To what extent do they encourage listeners to construct a hierarchy in which ostensible lyrical complexity is valued above other elements of composition/performance/production?

  2. Thanks Lewis. I’m interested in the way that you think about mundane subcultural capital in particular and the broader way in which these ideas relate to Thornton and Bourdieu’s ideas on capital. As their definitions relate to ways in which individuals can exert power over those with control of the resources in a given situation, I wonder what that power is in these circumstances? Obviously there are people who do exert power over the world through these reaction videos in that they earn money out of them. Is it still cultural capital if its only function is to make me feel better about my lack of power?

    1. Thanks Simon, good question! I don’t have a direct answer (yet), but here are some thoughts…
      I think we can conceive of different ‘types’ of cultural capital, some more literal in the case of professional reactors and some more symbolic in the case of ‘everyday fans’ (a problematic designation to be sure). Is there a symbolic power in making one feel better about a lack of actual power? Perhaps. The mundane/transgressive subcultural capital model is broadly concerned with cultural participants in all guises (from artists to audiences and everyone between), but I think it’s interesting to consider notions of capital on a single plain; e.g. among fans, as fans, can one accrue mundane subcultural capital through demonstrating a higher level of knowledge than the next person? If so, how might we interpret modes of demonstration or what constitutes a ‘high(er)’ level of knowledge? I didn’t get into it during the presentation, but Yeran Kim (2016) discusses Michael Goldhaber’s ‘attention economy’ in relation to K-pop reaction videos, basically contending that since information is abundant online, one way that people can claim power (or capital) is through garnering attention. In an attention economy, power might be conceptualised in relation to numbers of video views or likes on a comment, and since it appears that one of the ways reactors/commenters can garner attention is through demonstrating forms of knowledge, we can observe a link (not necessarily causal, of course) between knowledge as capital and capital as power.

      I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it’s definitely something I need to ponder during any further work in this area. Thanks!

  3. That was so interesting, thank you. And the sound quality was fine.

    It’s so valuable and important to introduce this type of digital ethnography into popular music studies, as platforms like YouTube such key sites for the production and transmission of knowledge now.

    My question relates to how/whether we can position this phenomenon within a wider context of an enduring US cultural imperialism? (following on from some of what Mykael and Rodney P had to say on Monday)

    It’s really hard to imagine a reverse version of the videos you show. To conceive of UK hip hop/rap fans being either so unknowing of signficant US locales such as Compton or the Bronx, or at least, be so willing to admit to that ignorance in a public forum.

    The UK explainers are demonstrating (sub)cultural capital not just within the context of a music genre, but within a wider cultural/socio-political context, and perhaps in one of very few spaces in which an intimate knowledge of South London bus routes, for example, might be a vehicle for such capital.

    I think the ‘unknownness’ of the intricacies of UK urban life in the world at large (even amongst demographics who are interested in/sympathetic to them) also add to their cool factor – perhaps one reason why Drake was so desperate to get in with Boy Better Know – and facilitate a real sense of community amongst those who are in the know. I remember how much my friends and I relished the little details of South London night life on the first Streets album, that would not have been readily decipherable to the vast majority of his listeners, and how much that added to a sense that we were all in the same ‘gang’ with the artist.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Ruth. I agree, the spectre of US cultural imperialism looms large in these reaction videos – there are numerous reactions to Stormzy, in particular, in which the US reactors note that his videos have garnered tens of millions of views and conclude that he must be popular even though they’ve never heard of him. There’s also an interesting dynamic at play in which some US reactors and commenters suggest that UK rappers are ‘better’ than their US counterparts at the moment (often with derisive comments about so-called mumble rappers); these kinds of comments speak to both the curatorial efforts of reaction commenters (who may only be suggesting people react to the ‘best’ examples of UK rap) and the broader a priori assumption that British rap must be understood in comparison to US rap, rather than as an independent cultural form.

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