Forrest Stuart is associate professor of sociology and director of the Stanford Ethnography Lab. As an urban ethnographer, he uses fieldwork, archival, and other qualitative methods to investigate the causes, contours, and consequences of urban poverty. His new book, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy (Princeton University Press, 2020) draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork to examine how digital social media transform the social organization of gangs, gang violence, urban culture, and poor urban neighborhoods more generally.
How poor urban youth in Chicago use social media to profit from portrayals of gang violence, and the questions this raises about poverty, opportunities, and public voyeurism
Amid increasing hardship and limited employment options, poor urban youth are developing creative online strategies to make ends meet. Using such social media platforms as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, they’re capitalizing on the public’s fascination with the ghetto and gang violence. But with what consequences? Ballad of the Bullet follows the Corner Boys, a group of thirty or so young men on Chicago’s South Side who have hitched their dreams of success to the creation of “drill music” (slang for “shooting music”). Drillers disseminate this competitive genre of hyperviolent, hyperlocal, DIY-style gangsta rap digitally, hoping to amass millions of clicks, views, followers, and a ticket out of poverty. But in this perverse system of benefits, where online popularity can convert into offline rewards, the risks can be too great.
Drawing on extensive fieldwork and countless interviews compiled from daily, close interactions with the Corner Boys, as well as time spent with their families, friends, music producers, and followers, Forrest Stuart looks at the lives and motivations of these young men. Stuart examines why drillers choose to embrace rather than distance themselves from negative stereotypes, using the web to assert their supposed superior criminality over rival gangs. While these virtual displays of ghetto authenticity—the saturation of social media with images of guns, drugs, and urban warfare—can lead to online notoriety and actual resources, including cash, housing, guns, sex, and, for a select few, upward mobility, more frequently drillers end up behind bars, seriously injured, or dead.
Raising questions about online celebrity, public voyeurism, and the commodification of the ghetto, Ballad of the Bullet offers a singular look at what happens when the digital economy and urban poverty collide.
Professor Stuart joined Stanford as part of the Faculty Development Initiative in 2018.