What makes people decide to try a particular drug? Growing up, we’re taught about the dangers of peer pressure, but that’s not the only factor that inspires someone to light their first joint or pop their first molly. The music you listen to may help determine which mood-altering substances you find appealing.
The latest example, published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse earlier this month, shows that hip hop and rap lyrics about molly influence people to try the drug. The paper’s primary author, Khary Rigg, is a professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida. He conducted a survey of African American young adults who’ve used molly, and 82% of the respondents said hip-hop music influenced their decision to try the drug. In the past, molly has primarily been linked to the rave and EDM scene, but Rigg notes, “I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of my participants were not in that scene at all.”
Rigg wasn’t surprised by the survey results, though, because mentions of molly in hip-hop and rap lyrics are almost entirely positive. He contrasts the way songs depict molly with lyrics about crack, which the rap community has historically viewed as terrible. “Crack ravaged the inner cities at the time that a lot of these rappers were rapping—Jay Z, Nas, Kanye West—all of these really popular hip hop stars saw the ill effects of crack. Whenever they would rap about crack, it’s always depicted as a horrible, horrible thing. But when they talked about molly, it was starkly different. Whenever they referenced molly, it was always alongside having fun, having amazing sex, being able to party—things like that. Every time they mentioned it, they were doing so much fun stuff.”
There was also an interview portion to Rigg’s survey. He says, “I would ask the participants, ‘Why did you make a decision to use this? How did all of this start?’ and it was usually a variety of reasons, but more often than not, it was, ‘I kept hearing about it from these rappers. It piqued my interest. It sounded like a good time, it sounded like fun.‘”
One participant told him, “I’m just trying to party like a rock star, not get strung out. Whenever they [rappers] mentioned it [molly], they are either partying, drinking, smoking, or having sex. All of the things I love to do most (laughs). I never heard about anyone getting addicted or dying. That made me feel better about trying it.”
In a separate study published in the Journal of Hip Hop Studies, Dr. CalvinJohn Smiley writes, “Many of these artists are glamorizing the drugs in their music and only showing the social benefits, which in this case is the authenticity of being seen as a gangster (Chief Keef) or having sex appeal (The Weekend).”
In Rihanna’s 2012 hit “Diamonds,” she sings, “Palms rise to the universe as we moonshine and molly / Feel the warmth, we’ll never die / We’re like diamonds in the sky.” The drug sounds warm and empowering, and the fact that the song hit number one makes it clear her fans connected with that vibe.
Rigg says that when less successful artists mentioned molly, it didn’t have much of an impact on listeners. “It really wasn’t until they started hearing rappers that they knew and respected—50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, French Montana… When they started hearing these guys talk about it, it really penetrated. They were like, ‘Maybe I need to start looking into this.’”
While clinical trials are currently underway to determine if MDMA may have therapeutic benefits related to recovering from PTSD, Rigg says the drug isn’t as safe as some rappers make it sound—in fact, he just published a separate paper on ecstasy and molly-related deaths—but it’s also not the worst thing out there. He says, “Not all drugs are created equal. For example, opioids, crystal meth… These are drugs that are highly addictive and much more dangerous than drugs like MDMA. But the truth is, there is no drug that is without risk.”
While some people may try drugs in an attempt to escape problems or self-medicate, Rigg didn’t find evidence of that in the molly study. He says, “The strong sense that I got was that people were just trying to have fun. They were using the drug quite a bit because these were the people they looked up to. These were the people who they wanted to be like, you know?”
The connection between drug references in songs and drug use by fans isn’t limited to rap and hip hop. A 2009 study published in the journal Addiction analyzed cannabis mentions in popular music and use of the drug among adolescents. High exposure to cannabis-related lyrics was associated with higher levels of cannabis use. The study states, “Music is known to be highly related to personal identity: young people often model themselves in terms of dress, behavior, and identity after musical figures, and the Social Cognitive Theory specifies that those with perceived similarity to behavior models will be more likely to imitate those behaviors.”
Rigg says, “The research supports the fact that populations look at certain people who are in power, who are famous, who have prestige. They have an influence on our behaviors, and it’s actually pretty real.”