The Digital Hood of Urban Violence: Exploring Functionalities of Social Media and Music Among Gangs

Published date01 November 2018
Date01 November 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(4) 442 –459
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986218787735
The Digital Hood of
Urban Violence: Exploring
Functionalities of Social
Media and Music Among
Janina Pawelz1 and Paul Elvers1
Social media and music are fundamental components of everyday life for today’s
youth. The uses and functions of social media and music provide valuable insights
for a better understanding of marginalized groups, subcultures, and gangs. Data are
based on in-depth, semistructured interviews with gang members and gang affiliates
in Trinidad and Tobago and combined with an analysis of social media content.
The findings reveal that street gangs use music and social media to glorify gang life,
to display power and send threats, to generate motivational support for criminal
activities, and to bond socially and mourn collectively. In our analysis, social media,
music, and music videos appear to be intimately interconnected phenomena; we thus
call for a broader focus on gangs’ online behavior.
online behavior, music, social media, gangs, violence, security, youth
Music and social media are fundamental components of everyday life for today’s
youth. This trend also applies to young people actively engaged in crime and gangs.
As such, scholars have begun to also examine the digital space of gang life in their
studies (see, for instance, Décary-Hétu & Morselli, 2011; Johnson & Schell-Busey,
2016; Patton, Eschmann, & Butler, 2013; Patton, Eschmann, Elsaesser, & Bocanegra,
1University of Hamburg, Germany
Corresponding Author:
Janina Pawelz, Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies, University of Hamburg, Beim Schlump
83, 20144 Hamburg, Germany.
787735CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218787735Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticePawelz and Elvers
Pawelz and Elvers 443
2016; Pyrooz, Decker, & Moule, 2013; Sela-Shayovitz, 2012; Storrod & Densley,
2017; Wijeratne, Doran, Sheth, & Dustin, 2015). Social media platforms such as
Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are accessible and versatile enough to “allow tens of
thousands of gang members to easily communicate, recruit, and form new gang alli-
ances nationwide and worldwide” (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2011, p. 41).
Activity on the Internet can be understood as “an extension of gang behavior on the
street, but with a much wider audience” (Pyrooz et al., 2013, p. 23). The online pres-
ence of gangs offers us a deeper understanding of their social structures and new
insights into the everyday world of those who usually operate in the underground. The
digital sphere opens a way to follow and interact with those who usually shield them-
selves from public awareness and live in areas avoided by regular citizens, such as
favelas, slums, and other “no-go” zones.
Urban violence is prevalent in Trinidad and Tobago, and gang war contributed to
the country having the sixth highest national homicide rate in the world in 2015 (The
World Bank, 2017). Several areas in Trinidad and Tobago are home to criminal gangs
and have become notorious for their high levels of violence and crime. Two major
gangs, namely, “Rasta City” and their rivals the “Muslims,” split up vast gang territory
among themselves, engaging in a bloody gang war.
Despite this, research on gangs’ online activities is absent. To address this short-
coming and extend current knowledge about the uses and functions of music and
social media among gangs, this article employs a qualitative, explorative case study
(Seawright & Gerring, 2008) and a grounded theory approach (Corbin & Strauss,
2008). This article draws on several months of fieldwork in the violent outskirts of
the capital city Port of Spain, which consisted of in-depth, semistructured interviews
with active gang members and affiliates, among others. Given the lack of access and
security considerations, interview partners were reached by the successive approach
(Pawelz, 2018). We combined the qualitative findings from interviews with an inter-
pretative analysis (Carragee, 1990) of media content from Facebook and music,
music videos, and other videos posted on YouTube. Snowball sampling was used to
identify and gather relevant Facebook and YouTube data for the interpretative
The uses and functions of social media and the specific content that is distributed
offer valuable insights into social and psychological phenomena that are associated
with gang-related behavior (e.g., social hierarchies, group dynamics, and psychologi-
cal needs) and otherwise inaccessible to individuals outside gangs’ structures.
Researchers have emphasized that gang members’ online habits are generally similar
to that of nongang members (Storrod & Densley, 2017)—for instance, in terms of
online delinquency (Sela-Shayovitz, 2012) and average time spent online (Patton et
al., 2014). Importantly, however, gang members more frequently engage in the view-
ing and dissemination of content depicting crime and violence in their social media
activity. Gangsta rap (Hagedorn, 2008) or trap rap (Storrod & Densley, 2017) is argu-
ably one of the most important forms of social media content for gang members. To
examine this, we employ an integrative approach that encompasses perspectives from
human–computer interaction, criminology, and music psychology.

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