From records to .mp3 files, recorded Hip Hop music has filled the ears of millions of its revelers worldwide. In the 21st century, although DJs still use records to spin Hip Hop songs at a variety of venues, people listen to Hip Hop and other types of music primarily using .mp3 and similar audio computer files and players complimented by high-powered speakers and headphones. However, research on the physical effects of the high frequencies of audio that these technological gems have afforded to music fans has not been a highlighted topic of discussion in the Hip Hop community and deserves focused attention. In our desire to make the most of our music-listening experience, we are taking for granted and potentially jeopardizing one of our most precious senses: the sense of hearing.
Hearing loss affects approximately 12% or 38 million people in the U.S. Many people that have hearing loss in the United States were born with it. Many others develop hearing loss in old age because of the wear and tear on ear health overtime. Approximately 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 have some form of hearing loss. Hearing loss is generally caused by accumulated damage to the inner ear or other cerebral components of the body’s auditory mechanism. The cochlea, the primary component of the inner ear, contains thousands of hair cells that detect sound waves captured by the tympanic membrane and convert them into electrical impulses that are translated by the brain. The cochlear nerve carries these electrical signals to the brainstem, where there undergo processing by the brain’s neurons. Individuals who smoke cigarettes, are obese, and/or that have diabetes mellitus, hypertension, atherosclerosis have been shown to increase the risk of hearing loss due to the negative effects of these conditions on the vascularity of the cochlea. In addition, when the hair cells of the cochlea are damaged by prolonged exposure to loud noise, the damage is often irreversible.
There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that listening to .mp3 and similar file players at high volumes overtime can lead to permanent damage to the ears and hearing loss, particularly in teenagers and young adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter amount of time it takes to permanently damage the sensitive hair cells of the cochlea. The maximum volume of an iPod, the most popular portable music player ever made, is at 103 decibels. Since the iPod was introduced, there has been an exponential rise in the number of people, especially young people, presenting with hearing loss. Headphones can greatly increase the decibel range of a music player, putting listeners at further risk or hearing loss if not used responsibly. For example, Dr. Dre’s “Beats By Dre” headphones and Ludacris’ “SOUL” headphones offer decibel ranges that are 10 or more decibels higher than regular headphones. The headphones used by DJs are often much more powerful that regular portable music player headphones and take less time to cause irreversible damage. In general, the process of losing one’s hearing from the use of portable music players can be a very slow one, and may not be noticeable until several years later. The devastating effects of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) have already begun to take their toll on Hip Hop artists, DJs, and other members of the Hip Hop community by affecting their ability to perceive pitch, loudness, and bass frequencies, and unfortunately, current trends predict an increase in the incidence and prevalence of hearing loss among music artists and fans in the future.
William James Adams Jr., better known as Will.I.Am, is an example of a Hip Hop artist that has been affected by the deleterious effects of prolonged exposure to loud music. With his remarkable rapping, song writing, and producing skills, Will.I.Am founded the group The Black Eyed Peas, which started out as an alternative Hip Hop group. With the addition of R&B, techno, pop, and dance music influences to their craft, the Black Eyed Peas have gone on to become the second highest selling music group of all time. Will.I.Am’s song “Yes We Can” became the unofficial theme song for President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He was also famously made into a hologram on CNN live from Chicago’s Grant Park the night of the 2008 presidential election.
In 2010, Will.I.Am was formally diagnosed with tinnitus. Tinnitus is an ear condition that causes a constant ringing or buzzing in the ears. It is most commonly caused by prolonged exposure to loud music. Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous musical artists of all time whose music has been sampled by several Hip Hop artists including Nas, Busta Rhymes, and Immortal Technique, also suffered from a very severe form of tinnitus. Beethoven began losing his hearing around the age of 26; however, he did not allow his increasingly deteriorating condition to stop him from composing music. Will.I.Amtold The Sun, a British tabloid, that he feels pain in his ears all the time and that he does not know “what silence sounds like anymore.” He also said that music is the only thing that “eases my pain”. By channeling his pain into his art as Ludwig Van Beethoven did before him, he and The Black Eyed Peas continue to excel in the entertainment industry.
The hearing loss affecting the Hip Hop community is not all noise-induced. An example of an artist who is affected by hearing loss not caused by loud noise exposure is Foxy Brown. Foxy Brown is one of the most successful female Hip Hop artists of all time. Alongside Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown is one of the pioneers of the highly-sexualized “Independent Female” Hip Hop genre, most recently popularized by Nicki Minaj, that has been the subject of praise, derision, and general debate at the highest levels of both media and academia. Her condition, unlike Will.I.Am’s, was not caused by exposure to loud music (but may have been exacerbated by it). Foxy suffered from sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused by viral infection.
In December 2005, Foxy Brown held a press conference during which she made a public statement about her hearing loss. At the press conference, she tearfully disclosed to the public that her hearing loss began while she was recording her album “Black Roses”. Her hearing loss was so severe; she had to have someone tap her shoulder to help her keep the beat while she recorded her lyrics. Doug E. Fresh, Hip Hop Public Health’s spokesperson and Vice-President of Entertainment, was present at that press conference to provide support. Fortunately, after an entire year of total deafness, Foxy Brown’s hearing was able to be restored with surgery. Foxy reportedly went straight from the operating room to the studio.
Another cause of hearing loss that is not commonly discussed is head trauma. Oftentimes, victims of domestic violence experience sudden hearing loss as a result of the abuse they experience. One such person that has hearing loss resulting from domestic violence is Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry. As a beacon of beauty for the Black-American and Pan-African community worldwide, Halle Berry was the first Black-American actress to win an Oscar as the Lead Actress in the Movie “Monster’s Ball”, in which she starred alongside Hip Hop mogul P. Diddy. She has maintained ties to the Hip Hop community throughout her career. For example, Halle Berry is friends with Hip Hop artist and fellow Academy Award-winning actor Will Smith and was very close with the late and great Heavy D. Before her acting career fully blossomed, she starred as a crackhead in both “Jungle Fever” and “Losing Isaiah”, two films which, alongside many Hip Hop songs in the 1990’s, highlighted the destructive power of crack cocaine in urban communities. She also starred alongside Warren Beatty in the film “Bulworth” about a politician who, fed up with the status quo, turns into a rapper. She has been mentioned in countless Hip Hop songs on account of her striking beauty, and several artists including Lil’ Wayne, Missy, and Kanye West have shouted her out in their music as an aesthetic ideal.
Halle Berry has been the victim of domestic violence in several of her past relationships. She claims that witnessing her mother being abused when she was a child caused her to have low esteem and to choose relationships with men who “mimicked her father”. Unfortunately, Halle Berry’s story is not uncommon among Black-American women. According to The Institute on Domestic Violence In The African-American Community (IDVAAC), Black-American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is 35% higher than White-American women, and intimate partner violence is the leading cause of death for Black-American women between the ages of 15 and 45. Incidents of domestic violence are currently on the rise due to the sluggish economy. Several Hip Hop artists have come under fire for espousing lyrics that seemed to validate if not promote domestic violence. Artists including Dr. Dre, Too $hort, Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Wayne, DMX, Eminem, and several others have coined lyrics that describe violent acts against a woman. Notorious B.I.G. infamously abused Lil’ Kim while they were romantically involved. Other Hip Hop artists and affiliates including Chris Brown, Funkmaster Flex, Joe Budden, and the late Big Pun have been involved in highly publicized domestic violence disputes. It is the abuse that Halle Berry allegedly suffered at the hands of actor Wesley Snipes that caused her to lose 80% of the hearing in her right ear. In June of last year, Halle Berry attended the Mayors Fund Benefit in New York City in support of family justice centers and to highlight the cause of curbing domestic violence against women.
When Thomas Edison first invented the phonograph, he invented it with the noble goal of making the beauty of music available to the masses. There was no way that he could imagine that recorded music would one day threaten the very mechanisms needed to enjoy it. Individuals and entities that make music players and headphones have a duty to protect the hearing of their consumers. A warning in fine print on the product package is not sufficient to protect music fans from the potential damage that these audio technologies subject them to. Widespread educational campaigns about the effects of prolonged music exposure on one’s sense of hearing are critical at this juncture, especially for teenagers and young adults. Hip Hop and other musical artists should also get their hearing checked on a regular basis to test for any signs of hearing loss.
It is also critical that the conversation about the prevalence of domestic violence, not only as a potential cause of hearing loss, but as a general pestilence of our society, continues in the hopes of reversing the current upward trend. Though it is true that art imitates life, life may also imitate art. As the Hip Hop generation has generated many of the recent deplorable statistics on domestic violence, awareness about domestic violence and its physical and mental consequences should be continuously cultivated in the Hip Hop community.
Losing the ability to hear is a psychologically harrowing experience that can completely change the course of a person’s life. Protecting one’s general health by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding or removing factors that threaten one’s health is key to preserving this precious sense. The real threat of hearing loss must be confronted on a wide scale so that the important messages that Hip Hop can and does offer continue to be heard.
By: Mo Flow aka Monique Hedmann