Dr. Geoff Harkness Hung Out With Gangsters For Six Years

Dr. Geoff Harkness Hung Out With Chicago Gangsters For Six Years – Then Wrote A Book About It

[G]eoff Harkness, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Morningside College in Iowa, whose recent scholarly publications show his wide range of social-science research and his global perspective seeking to learn more about diverse communities. His research travels have taken him from the Middle East to study women athletes to the streets, clubs and recording studios of Chicago to learn more about the connections between rap music and gang culture.

Submitted by: Paysha Rhone
Academy Communications
Geoff Harkness, Ph.D

His research travels have taken him from the Middle East to study women athletes to the streets, clubs and recording studios of Chicago to learn more about the connections between rap music and gang culture.

Harkness’s 2014 book “Chicago Hustle and Flow: Gangs, Gangsta Rap, and Social Class” is based on his Northwestern University dissertation research conducted during six years of hanging out in Chicago nightclubs, interviewing and videotaping rappers. “A couple of years into the project, I started realizing that a lot of the people I was meeting and interviewing were gang members, and I started to become interested in the connection between gangs and rappers,” Harkness said.

“A couple of years into the project, I started realizing that a lot of the people I was meeting and interviewing were gang members, and I started to become interested in the connection between gangs and rappers,” he said.

Harkness began studying it more deliberately and published several articles about hip-hop and the different cultural aspects of rap music, something he considered understudied. “There are lots of books about gangs and rap music, but I hadn’t seen much about the overlap,” he said.

The book is based on many years of first-hand research and interviews with more than 135 young Chicago-area rappers struggling to make names for themselves.

“Rap music is now considered to be a legitimate road out of gang culture,” Harkness says. Previously, he points out, sports was often viewed by urban youth as the only real option to pursue a better life, though there have also been rappers for decades.

The reason for the recent change?

“Affordable recording equipment is now available, offering a new option to young artists who want to record, share and promote their work.”

Harkness had grown up around music, knew all about rap, and was a music journalist at newspapers in Kansas City and Chicago. “When I started this project I was working for the Chicago Tribune, constantly interviewing musicians, going to concerts. I knew everything about rap music. I knew the whole history of rap music and hip-hop.”

The Morningside College professor describes the rap scene in Chicago as intense and focused, and notes that he was ten years older than the rappers and usually the only white person in the room. “I was the guy with a camera,” he explains. “I took it everywhere I went. I used it at the clubs. I videotaped the concerts and posted them

“I took it everywhere I went. I used it at the clubs. I videotaped the concerts and posted them online. This was when YouTube had just recently started, it was a new thing, and no one in Chicago was doing this.”

He notes that he had “a pretty good camera that looked like something serious,” and that impressive-looking camera often got him the access he needed. “In that sense, I was part of the scene. I was collaborating and creating with them, I wasn’t there just to take from them, and I was giving something back by posting videos for them.”

In gaining access to the rap music community in Chicago, Harkness says being himself was key to maintaining that welcome, and he felt it important to never tried to be anything that he wasn’t. “It’s a culture that is caught up with being authentic and being true to oneself,” he maintains. “I knew I was a guy from a very different world—I was always an outsider, even though I interacted with them.” He says being honest about those differences helped him obtain credibility as he maintained first-hand access and gained understanding.

“It’s a culture that is caught up with being authentic and being true to oneself,” Harkness maintains. “I knew I was a guy from a very different world—I was always an outsider, even though I interacted with them.” He says being honest about those differences helped him obtain credibility as he maintained first-hand access and gained understanding.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Geoff Harkness can be reached at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.