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Gun violence, murder and music: U of T sociologist explores wide range of subjects

(photo courtesy Jooyoung Lee)

Gun violence is an ugly reality of life in North America. But how does it affect our cities or the social fabric of our neighbourhoods?

University of Toronto assistant professor Jooyoung Lee is delving into this issue. 

Lee, an urban sociologist and lifelong hip hop music fan, is originally from Southern California. He has taught courses such as the “Sociology of Hip Hop” and ethnography at the downtown campus. This semester, he’ll be teaching a class called “The Sociology of Murder,” which explores theories of evil and the aftermath of murder. 

Writer Dominic Ali spoke with Lee about his research.

What inspired you to start researching hip hop?
I grew up in Southern California during the 1992 Rodney King riots. I lived a couple of hours east of Los Angeles and was immediately drawn to gangsta rap, which provided a soundtrack to the many events happening around that time. For instance, I remember being a kid and listening to Ice Cube’s “Black Korea”, which sort of encouraged me to think about the ways that racial and ethnic minorities were pit against one another in LA and other urban locales. This and many other kinds of hip hop got me thinking about racial inequality, which is at the heart of my research.

Later, when I was at UC Berkeley, I got into deejaying and popping, two of the main creative expressions in hip hop culture. I was never good at deejaying, but my main focus was on dancing. After graduating from Berkeley, I pursued a PhD in sociology at UCLA and was drawn to a local underground hip hop open mic called “Project Blowed”. This became my dissertation, which I’m now turning into a book with University of Chicago Press. 

How did your other research interest develop?
My interests in gun violence emerged while researching my dissertation. The young men that I was writing about were from South Central LA and had grown up around various Crip and Blood gangs, police brutality and other traumas. One of the main guys I was writing about also got shot. His story really inspired me to focus my research on the health trajectories of gunshot victims, who are mostly uninsured in the U.S.

After UCLA, I moved to Philly and started doing research in the outpatient trauma clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. I began interviewing gunshot victims and learned about the ways that being wounded had changed their lives. Afterwards, I followed up with these victims to better understand how they coped with such traumatic injuries.  

Most readers might be surprised to know that most gunshot victims don’t die. In the U.S., only about 20 per cent of assault-related shootings end in death. This means that there is a huge population of people who are newly disabled, living with chronic pain and other mental health concerns. My goal as a researcher is to shed light on this population and really show how different institutions could better serve this vulnerable population.  

Can you compare the U.S. and Canada?
Gun violence rates are much lower overall in Canada than in the U.S. The firearm homicide rate in Canada is about 0.5 per 100,000, which is a fraction of the U.S. rate (3 per 100,000).  

The disparities are even more pronounced in big cities. I previously lived in Philadelphia, which is the most violent big city in America, with a homicide rate at 15 per 100,000. Toronto’s homicide rate is a shade under 2 per 100,000. So, there are big differences between the Canadian and U.S. context. 

Many people immediately think that these rates are the result of gun laws; in the U.S. it’s relatively easier to own a gun than in Canada. But I think this is too simplistic. Gun violence is a much larger, systemic issue that reveals structural vulnerabilities in at-risk populations. I am deeply interested in examining the interconnections between Canadian social welfare policies, affordable housing, education and other larger safety nets that can also be seen as interventions into gun violence.

Is this just a big city thing?
Gun violence and murder are much lower in rural and small town settings. But, when they do occur in these places, they have a much more pronounced effect on people’s everyday lives. In my teaching, I often use the old TV show Twin Peaks to illustrate this idea. It’s easy to get lost in the flood of crime news in big cities. One murder or shooting can capture people’s attention, but this focus dissipates once another hot item hits the news. This isn’t the same for rural or small town settings, where murders and violent crimes have longer lasting social and emotional effects on people. A single murder in a small village can transform trust and alter relationships for an entire generation.

Why did you pursue your research at U of T?
I came to U of T because it is an exciting intellectual environment. The sociology department at U of T has a huge and diverse faculty. I love walking down the hall and having conversations with people who study prisons, political sociology, health and various other topics that are and are not related to my work. I think that’s something that really sets U of T apart from many sociology departments in North America.

So what’s your favourite Toronto hip hop album?
I’ve really grown to appreciate Drake. My students always laugh whenever I bring him up in class. I think they are more critical of him because they grew up with him on Degrassi and know a bit about his backstory. But his album “Take Care” really showcases his songwriting and singing.