Crime, Punishment and Hip-Hop
By Jabari Asim
Monday, June 14, 2004; 10:27 AM
As might be expected of a legal scholar who studies crime and punishment, Paul Butler peppers his conversation with references to such noted thinkers as Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. But he is also fond of alluding to Nas, Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill, none of whom is typically cited in discussions about legal philosophy. Butler's familiarity with those best-selling recording artists derives from his passion for hip-hop music. "I love it," he told me. "I listen to it all the time."
Butler has combined his interests in an article published in the April issue of the Stanford Law Review, "Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment." A professor at George Washington University Law School, Butler argues that rappers and philosophers have more in common than we might think. "I'm constantly aware of the conversation between these two groups," he said. "Erykah Badu is talking to Kant, Snoop Dog is talking to Foucault. Sometimes they vigorously disagree but they keep hitting on the same things."
His essay addresses the convergence of two developments: the astounding expansion of the American penal system and the rise of rap. "For much of our history imprisonment was used as a last resort. Something happened in the 1980s when we started using it promiscuously, mainly against blacks and Latinos. At the same time we had black and Latino men becoming the leaders of youth culture. We had them inventing a dominant form of popular culture," Butler said. Almost inevitably, Butler suggests, hip-hoppers began to comment on crime and punishment in their music.
He writes, "Hip-hop culture makes a strong case for a transformation of American criminal justice. ... Its message is one that we should heed for reasons both moral and utilitarian."
I asked Butler if the wide range of lyrical and performance styles in hip-hop music made it difficult to state the case for a unifying "message" about such a contentious topic. He said he found common themes throughout the genre, even in such seemingly disparate forms as gangsta rap and conscious rap, which focus on social and political empowerment. "I thought there'd be this big dichotomy," he added. "It turns out on this issue they are saying exactly the same thing. The hip-hop community is united on this front."
Butler says most rappers support the idea that criminals should be punished, despite hip-hop's apparent fascination with outlaw behavior. Like Kant, many rappers argue in favor of retribution-style justice: If you take something from society, something should be taken from you. As supporting evidence, Butler quotes Jay-Z: "Now if you shoot my dog, I'ma kill yo' cat/ Just the unwritten laws in rap -- know dat/ For every action, there's a reaction."
According to Butler, what rappers consistently critique is the massive and disproportionate incarceration of men of color. "There are 2 million people in prison," he said. "There are actually more people in prison than there are in Delaware. That's seldom acknowledged in our culture other than in hip-hop music."
The most effective form of deterrence used to be social disapproval, Butler noted. People avoided criminal behavior because they didn't want to be scorned by their peers. But the sheer numbers of people in prison have undermined the effectiveness of punishment by removing the stigma of incarceration. "The dangerous effect of using prison so promiscuously is that we almost start to think that any place that has that many people like me can't be all bad."
In Butler's view, hip-hop's commentary on crime and punishment collectively suggests that "if we want incarceration to be effective, we're gonna have to use it a lot, lot less."
As someone who tries to look favorably on hip-hop's strengths while taking it to task for its failures, I respect Butler's willingness to envision the music as a galvanizing force for systematic and necessary reforms. But the still-inchoate nature of political organizing among hip-hoppers gives me pause -- as does its widespread misogyny and homophobia. Can artists who often exhibit unjust attitudes toward women and homosexuals be taken seriously on other matters related to justice?
Butler acknowledges these shortcomings, and points out that he is merely emphasizing the potential of hip-hop to foment positive change. He finds considerable risk in ignoring hip-hoppers' substantial cohesion regarding crime and punishment. "We couldn't have this strong advocacy on other issues such as gay marriage, abortion, welfare reform; hip-hop is all over the place on those," he said. "But with incarceration, everybody from Lauryn Hill to Nate Dogg is saying the same thing."
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