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USF Researchers Decode The Music Of Hate

A USF analysis of white power songs led to a number of key themes that provide a better understanding of the white power movement’s perceptions of society.
While much of the research on extremist movements has focused on the groups’ violent acts, there has been less attention on the nonviolent activities, such as music.

One of the more significant themes to emerge from the study was that of a perceived desecration of society.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, racially motivated violent extremism is a persistent and growing threat in the United States.

University of South Florida researchers Jessica Grosholz, an associate professor of criminology, and Zacharias Pieri, an assistant professor of international relations and security studies at USF Sarasota-Manatee are studying early indicators and drivers of violent extremism connected to white nationalism.

Specifically, the two are examining music associated with the white power movement and how it reflects and influences the movement.

WUSF’s Cathy Carter spoke with Grosholz about what they have learned.

Jessica, white power music began in the late 70’s, early 80’s as an offshoot of punk rock and was mostly underground. But with the proliferation of the internet, it's now an international enterprise. So how does this music play into extremism?

White power music is really an excellent sort of nonviolent tool to reflect the worldview of the individuals who espouse these values, right? It is a way for individuals to listen to what people are thinking. And they may say, ‘Hey, I kind of agree with what this message is.’

And if you're a person that's listening to this music, I imagine one of the things that you would be hearing is that your views are shared by other people. So maybe your views aren't so out of the mainstream?

That's exactly right. So, you have individuals who may feel marginalized, who may feel alienated, and all of a sudden, they're listening to something, and it's reflecting what they're thinking. And so now they're thinking, ‘Well, here are some people that align with my values that align with my beliefs, I'm going to continue listening.’ And maybe, other research might be able to attest to this, but maybe they think they may join the movement and be motivated to mobilize into action.

So, what are some of the ways that say a young person can become exposed to this kind of music and this way of thinking?

Some of the music from these bands is pretty mundane, there's not a huge level of white superiority. So, it's possible that individuals might get access to that music first. And then they're like, ‘I like this band, I'm going to see if there's more music out there from them’. As we were doing our data collection, we had found a few bands that were really prominent, and we started searching for those lyrics. And from there, similar to algorithms used by YouTube, and Netflix, they started suggesting to us other bands that we might like based on our apparent interest. And so that's another way that individuals can sort of go down this, what we refer to as the white power music rabbit hole.

Tell us a little bit more about your study.

For this particular project, we analyzed about 337 songs from seven or eight white power bands. And we qualitatively analyzed the songs together line by line, to really understand the themes and the narrative that emerges within the lyrics. And from our analysis, we were able to show that it's a real sort of linear but interconnected story that gets told in the songs starting with this idea that society is in decay, particularly as it relates to anti-Semitism, anti-liberal order, corruption of the media, particularly by a perceived Jewish controlled media, and then people of color, and immigration.

In the songs, they talk about how people can take one of three paths as a result of this desecration of society. And the first is that people don't see society is in decay, so they're sort of the sheep. Then you have the individuals in the second path that understand society is in decay, but they're too coward to act on it. And then you have this third path, that they're all sort of awakened. And as a result of that, in order to improve the situation in society, you either have to engage in vigilante justice or extreme violence. And this narrative plays out in all of the songs that we analyzed.

So how can this information in your study benefit the fight against extremism?

So the research really can help inform policy discussions and it can help law enforcement with enacting preventative, proactive measures. By understanding the themes that are in this music, we can start to understand the way certain individuals or groups in society see the world and really work to counteract those messages. It may prevent individuals from going down this sort of path.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.