Multiethnic and Urban Influence on Today’s Youth Culture

October 9th, 2009


I grew up in the urban area of South Minneapolis—not the biggest city around, but urban enough. I must admit, though, for a number of my teenage years, I was influenced by other teenagers who were a lot different from me.

Despite my urban, African-American, middle-class home, my fashion, speech, and choice of music were influenced by young people from another part of the city. For about three years, I spent a lot of time trying to be like a group of white teens that lived in a more affluent part of Minneapolis. I’m not sure today why they influenced me so much, but they did. Maybe I thought they had a better life than I did because they lived in a better neighborhood. Maybe it was because most of the television shows I watched featured mostly white characters and this group of kids seemed a lot like those television characters I dreamed of being like. Whatever the reasons, I just know that I wanted a skateboard because this group of teenagers had them. I wanted penny loafer shoes because this group wore them. I listened to music groups like Kansas, Hall and Oats, and The Police (I hope you realize how hard it is for an urban African-American to admit to this) because these were the groups I heard when I visited these kids’ homes.


I was influenced by the “affluent white youth culture.” It’s not that I totally separated myself from what would be known as “black culture.” I was very much into rap music—groups like Run DMC, Public Enemy, as well as Eric B., and Rakim could be found throughout my music collection—and basketball (though my court skills were nothing to brag about). And although I hung out with a number of black friends, I must admit that not many parts of my teenage life were influenced by these kids who were most like me. However, my teenage years growing up in the ’80s may have been the last decade in which white, suburban youth culture had a heavy influence on youth culture as a whole.

Hip-Hop for Suburbanites
Today that trend has reversed itself. Now urban, hip-hop, and black youth culture often has an influence on the whole youth culture—white teens far from the inner-city streets are influenced by the slang, fashion, and music of the ’hood. I’ve heard it said in many hip-hop articles that if white suburban teens stopped buying rap music, the industry would go out of business. If this is true, we must change the way we minister to young people. If this is true, we can no longer put up with divisions between urban youth ministry and so-called “mainstream” youth ministry. If this is true, we need to question why most Christian music festival lineups usually include 100 rock and alternative bands and 3 urban/hip-hop groups.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness firsthand this trend of urban influence on white kids living outside the inner city and youth ministry in general. I’ve been in youth ministry for nearly ten years.

All but two years I was youth pastor at a church located in Tipp City, Ohio (That’s right, I went from the inner city to Tipp City!). I must admit that I was nervous when I arrived at this predominately white, suburban megachurch.

The youth group consisted of about 200 young people and was 99% white, and suburban or rural.

I asked myself, “How in the world am I going to be able to identify with these young people? I have nothing in common with them. They’re white and I’m black; they’re from the suburbs and I’m from the city. Why in the world did this church hire an urban youth worker?” These thoughts burdened me the first month or so that I was there, but then I began to notice a few things that led to a breakthrough in my ministry to these young people.

More Similar than Different
One weekend I went to a football game at the local high school. As I entered the small stadium, sure enough, I stuck out from everyone else! Some people asked if I was Emmit Smith or Will Smith. But no, I responded that I was actually Efrem Smith. As I left the game, two white, blue jean-clad teenage males were leaving as well. One had on a baseball cap, the other a cowboy hat. They were walking to a pickup truck parked right next to my car. The pickup truck had two confederate flag stickers in the back window and a gun rack inside the truck. I must admit that I began to stereotype these two teens right away. As I got into my car and they into their truck something happened that shocked me and changed the way I would look at today’s youth culture. These two teens started up the truck, rolled down their windows and began to blast the music of rapper Snoop Dog from their stereo! They looked at me and said, “What’s up, dog?” Then they drove away, leaving me stunned.

While serving in this decidedly-not-urban youth pastor position, I noticed the kinds of people that youth in the area looked up to as hero figures. I connected early on with some of the boys in the youth group through “house video game tournaments.” Most of the time these tournaments would take place in the bedroom of whoever was hosting that week. Many of these white boys, suburban and rural, had posters of black athletes and rappers on their walls. Although many of them admitted that I was the first black person with whom they’d ever developed a personal relationship, they had been influenced by a black, urban culture long before.

Another time, in an attempt to get to know them better, I passed out a survey in Sunday school asking them questions about their favorite foods, radio stations, television shows, and movies. Hip-hop was the favorite music genre of most of the kids. After this, I began to really notice how well I was connecting to these young people, even though I was from the city and they were not. Just by being myself, I was making connections. I didn’t have to change my slang, favorite music style, or fashion taste. They already identified with my urban roots even though they weren’t from the city themselves.

“The Culture of Rap”
In his book, Hip Hop America, Nelson George talks about the influence of hip-hop music on all of America, not just urban kids:

“Now we know that rap music, and hip hop style as a whole, has utterly broken through from its ghetto roots to assert a lasting influence on American clothing, magazine publishing, television, language, sexuality, and social policy as well as its obvious presence in records and movies….Advertisers, magazines, MTV, fashion companies, beer and soft drink manufacturers, and multimedia conglomerates like Time Warner have embraced hip hop as a way to reach not just black young people but all young people.”

Although, at times, Patricia Hersch tends to stereotype urban and black teens, she does recognize the urban influence on the youth culture in her book, A Tribe Apart. She writes about what she sees as the black, hip-hop, and urban influence on suburban white youth:

“It’s hip-hop in suburbia, the culture of rap. Everywhere students wear baseball caps turned backwards or pulled down over their eyes, oversize T-shirts, ridiculously baggy jeans or shorts with dropped crotches that hang to mid-shin, and waists that sag to reveal the tops of brightly colored boxers. Expensive name-brand high tops complete the outfit. Variations on the theme are hooded sweatshirts, with the hood worn during school, and ’do rags,’ bandannas tied on the head, a style copied from street gangs.”

Multiethnic Ministry?
The urban influence is not just about hip-hop music. There’s also a “multiethnic influence” on youth culture as well. Many commercials geared toward youth feature multiethnic casts. A soda commercial recently showed an African-American, Asian-American, and European-American riding their dirt bikes together. It was a multiethnic, community call to the youth culture to drink Mountain Dew. Some Barbie doll commercials feature multiethnic groups of girls basically saying to the little girls watching, “Everyone has a Barbie, what’s wrong with you?” Gap commercials display multiethnic groups dancing, singing, and skating together, all in Gap jeans, pointing to the new multicultural denim revolution. Today, if commercials targeting children and youth don’t feature multiethnic casts, they’re usually using black athletes or black rappers to sell their products.

Though kids today are being influenced by a black, hip-hop, multiethnic, and urban world, they too often walk into homogenous youth groups that are led by leaders who, in general, don’t seem to be paying attention to the coming multicultural youth revolution and the influence it’s already having on their students.

What Jesus said to the Samaritan woman concerning worship could be said about this revolution; “The time is coming and now has come.” The multicultural youth revolution may not be televised, but it certainly is real. Within the youth culture there’s a growing multiracial population that promises to tear down walls of race and culture that have separated past generations.

Demographic Changes
In a May 2000 Newsweek article entitled, “Color My World,” Lynette Clemetson talks about the growth of a multiracial youth culture:

“Thirty years ago, only one in every 100 children born in the United States was of mixed race. Today that number is one in 19. In states like California and Washington it’s closer to one in 10. The morphing demographics give many teens a chance to challenge old notions of race.”

A few months ago I was speaking to an all-white class of seminary students in Minnesota. After I finished my presentation I took some questions from the class. One young man asked me a question that went something like, “Hey, I’m a youth pastor in a rural area in an all-white church but there’s a growing Asian and Hispanic youth population that has migrated to my town and I don’t know how to reach them. There are also some multiracial families that are now in the town as well. How do I reach young people in the age of the Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey youth culture?” Here was a youth-ministry need that no youth ministry resource addressed.

Training Youth Ministers
If it’s true that the youth culture has become more urban and multiculturally influenced, then why does mainstream youth ministry in its leadership, marketing, training, and practical theology still come across so male, suburban, and white? Youth-ministry speakers, leaders, and professors seem to care very little about putting urban youth or multiethnic issues at the forefront of their agendas. Some of the reasons may be that there aren’t very many full-time urban youth pastors, especially in comparison to our suburban counterparts. Maybe youth ministry has become big business today, and there aren’t enough urban youth workers with the resources to pay the price to put urban youth ministry in the mainstream.

For the most part, white, suburban, megachurch youth pastors are marketed as the experts in youth ministry while urban youth pastors of color rarely, if ever, get a chance to write, teach, or present practical theology to transform how we think about youth ministry. I’ve even had youth ministry leaders question me about whether urban youth ministry should even be presented outside of what they call mainstream youth ministry—which many times is just a code word for rich, white, suburban, programmed youth ministry.

Even though today’s kids cross racial and ethnic lines more proactively than any generation before them, I’m concerned that adult leaders are satisfied with presenting a suburban, white model that seems to care more about game ideas and raising up corporate, white, male youth ministry experts than talking about what’s really influencing students.

None of the youth ministry leaders and so-called experts seem to want to deal with why the pain, hopelessness, and anger of the urban youth are now reflected in the rural and suburban areas through school shootings all across the country. No one really wants to talk about how racism has kept us from developing a radical and revolutionary global model for youth ministry that could raise a generation of young people to build the authentic, Christ-centered, and multiethnic church laid out in chapter two of Acts.

Youth speakers who were radicals in the ’60s and ’70s sound mainstream today, mainly because they won’t deal head-on with race issues and the urban influence. We can no longer afford to treat urban youth ministry as a misfit, outcast ministry. Urban youth workers, speakers, and theologians can no longer be treated like modern day Samaritans of ministry. Urban youth ministry must move to the forefront.

Youth culture is changing in many ways, because the new radical voice of ministry comes from the ’hood. The voices of rappers in the inner city aren’t just influencing the hearts and minds of urban youth. The voices have found their ways into the soul of youth culture as a whole. I just hope and pray that youth leaders will take the time to pay attention, be real, and catch up.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.