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Excerpted From: Andre Douglas Pond Cummings, Teaching Social Justice Through “Hip-hop and the Law”, 42 North Carolina Central Law Review 3 (2019) (157 Footnotes) (Full Document)
This article queries whether it is possible to teach law students about social justice through a course on hip hop and its connection to and critique of the law. We argue, in these dedicated pages of the North Carolina Central Law Review, that yes, hip hop and the law offer an excellent opportunity to teach law students about social justice. But, why publish an article advocating that national law schools offer a legal education course on Hip Hop and the Law, or more specifically, Hip Hop & the American Constitution? Of what benefit might a course be that explores hip hop lyrics and hip hop artists' critique of United States law and policy? In an era where bar passage rates are slipping across the nation and law schools are struggling to attract students to their hallways and classrooms, is there space and time in a law school curriculum to offer a class on hip hop and its critique of the law? I argue here that time and space must be created to offer law students an opportunity to embrace hip hop's critique of the U.S. Constitution and its critique of the laws and policies that have always been developed, since the nation's founding, from the top down--that is to say, developed from an elite, straight, wealthy white male perspective. Here is why:
Hip hop music and culture have conquered the world. Born in New York City (the Bronx), this quintessential American cultural phenomenon has captured the hearts and minds of two generations of U.S. residents as well as enthusiasts across the globe. This hip hop takeover, n‚ revolution, is so recognized in literature and culture, that it bears no further explanation. Suffice it to say, that today, the U.S. law professoriate is infused with a stirring population of hip hop aficionados. Further, current law students are overwhelmingly individuals that know, love, and are deeply impacted by hip hop music, art, and culture.
Additionally, hip hop music, at its core, offers a provocative critique of United States law, particularly the criminal justice system. This critique, offered from the bottom up--that is to say, from the perspective of those that have been historically oppressed and voiceless--presents a knowing appraisal of how the law as promulgated, practiced, and enforced in the United States harshly impacts and does positive injury to communities of color and people living in poverty in the United States. Today, more than ever, those that teach, enforce, and practice the law should be paying attention to the critique emanating from faces at the bottom of the well, particularly from hip hop faces.
Further, this article seeks to contribute meaningfully to the existing literature and debate that considers and addresses the inclusion of race and inequality within the legal education landscape and law school curriculum.
To begin contextualizing the gravity and influence of hip hop and why its critique of the law should be taught in law schools across the country, I offer my own experience in being shaped and guided by this genre and culture, including why I eventually came to believe that such a course should be created. Hip hop's critique of the law first meaningfully influenced me as a young teenager growing up in Los Angeles, California (“L.A.”). I was raised in an area of L.A. called the “Los Angeles Strip” or the “Shoestring Strip” (the strip of land annexed by Los Angeles running from L.A. south to San Pedro, Wilmington, and the L.A. Harbor), my community was flanked on the east by Carson, Compton and Long Beach and on the west by Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes. My experience as a youngster included friendships with those that would become Crips and Bloods and those that would become surfers. As one might expect, the young kids that became gangstas were primarily African American, Polynesian and Latino (from Carson, Compton and Long Beach), and the young kids that became surfers were overwhelmingly white (from Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes). I enjoyed a comraderie with both groups of friends, but as we became older, the groups diverged and eventually spent little to no time with each other. I prized both groups of friends and remained connected to both. I learned as a very young man that the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) treated these groups of boys drastically different. The young men of color were stopped and harassed repeatedly by the police, essentially for existing. The young white men never encountered the police in a similar scenario as the young men of color. Ever.
Thereafter, as a teenager, when I was hanging with my friends of color, we were constantly stopped by the police, then pushed up against walls and frisked; we were laid out on the ground and searched; our cars were seized and searched, with seats removed and glovebox contents strewn everywhere. We were menaced and tussled, and we were never beyond the reach and view of law enforcement (helicopters would circle our neighborhood shining spotlights into our yards night after night). When I was hanging with my surfer friends, we lived and traveled unencumbered and freely, nary a police officer in sight. We were never, ever pushed up against walls and frisked, never laid out in the street and searched, never menaced or tussled, and our car seats were never removed and the contents of our glove boxes never strewn across the streets. Law enforcement was simply not a part of the surfer's experience, despite being situated less than two miles from the lives of the minority youth (to the west toward the beach). In the face of the relentless press of the police into the lives and space of the young men of color, there was never one time, that I can recall, that the police recovered drugs, weapons, or anything illegal. On the other hand, some of the surfers were routinely carrying marijuana and, in several instances, weapons, but there was no thought that the surfers would ever be confronted by law enforcement. As white surfers, we carried “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, based simply on our circumstance and area code. I recognized at quite a formidable stage in my life that law enforcement treated people differently based on their skin tone and their area code, despite “bad” and “good” existing in both places fairly equally.
Therefore, when N.W.A dropped “Fuck tha Police” in 1989, that cut resonated with the teenage gangstas like nothing else before it. I remember us rapping loudly along with Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E, as if truth was finally being acknowledged in our neighborhood. N.W.A harshly criticized law enforcement and established for us a voice that named police brutality, police killing of black men and boys, and racial profiling that we had witnessed first-hand. At that moment we heard, “Fuck tha police coming straight from the underground; Young n[. . .] got it bad 'cause I'm brown; I'm not the other color, so police think; They have the authority to kill a minority; Fuck that shit 'cause I ain't the one; For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun to be beatin’ on; and thrown in jail; I can go toe to toe in the middle of the cell ...,” we felt heard; we felt understood; and we felt empowered in a very affecting way.
Of course, not long after the release of (and backlash to “Fuck tha Police,” the LAPD beat down Rodney King; the offending police were then acquitted in Simi Valley, California; and the streets of L.A. burned. I had departed for college between N.W.A releasing Straight Outta Compton and the Rodney King beating, but came home to L.A. for the summer just as it was announced that the police were acquitted, despite the beating being captured on video. Vivid in my memory is driving through a smoldering Los Angeles and again, witnessing first-hand the aftermath of police brutality and a furious black community's response. What I will never forget, and I see now that it would prove to be a signal for my future career as a lawyer and law professor, were the words “Fuck tha Police” scrawled everywhere, across walls, buildings, bridges and billboards. N.W.A's anthem had become a rallying cry for those who felt disenfranchised and invisible after a jury found that the officers who beat Rodney King on video were innocent of criminal culpability. Hip hop had become the voice of a generation and N.W.A had become both a lightning rod and an inspiration for minority youth across the country and eventually the world.
Fast-forward seven or eight years from the smoldering and smoky streets of a burning Los Angeles, and I am now a young lawyer in Chicago having recently graduated from Howard Law School. While working at a large corporate law firm, I spent dozens of hours each month volunteering as a Big Brother on Chicago's West and South Sides and eventually assisted in originating an after-school homework program for a group of middle and high school students of color who would retreat to a local church for homework and tutoring several nights a week. I would routinely leave the firm in downtown Chicago at 7:00 pm, drive my small sports car to the West Side, fill the car up with a half dozen high school and middle school kids, drive them to a church in Logan Square, and then tutor several of them for a couple of hours. Around 9:00 pm I would drop off the carload of kids to the West Side, then return to the firm downtown to work several more hours. During the trip to and from Logan Square, I would often turn on my CD player and the kids would plead with me to blast their favorite hip hop artists, and at the time, it was DMX that resonated most with the kids. As I played DMX as loud as my system could handle, I was at first startled to see that every kid in the car, boys and girls alike, rapped along to every cut on the CD, knowing every single lyric of the record by heart, including every growl. I was especially amazed to see the young girls loudly joining in as DMX rapped “What you b want from a n[. . .] and at that moment realized that hip hop was not just giving voice to a generation, but that it was deeply (and sometimes darkly) becoming a literal piece of the lives of these young students in the “'hood.” Hip hop was becoming a lifestyle, an influence, one that impacted the core of these young teenagers. Hip hop was having a profound impact.
With these connections and understandings, and my own life being intellectually and culturally influenced by hip hop and its many political critiques, I began formulating an article that I would eventually publish as a young law professor entitled “Thug Life: Hip Hop's Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice.” I would follow-up that article shortly thereafter with “A Furious Kinship: Critical Race Theory and the Hip Hop Nation.” Both of these articles would influence my writing of “'All Eyez On Me’: America's War on Drugs and the Prison Industrial Complex.” As these articles were being drafted, Professor Paul Butler led off the hip hop legal academic exploration with his Stanford Law Review piece, “Much Respect: Toward a Hip Hop Theory of Punishment,” and before long, Donald Tibbs, Akilah Folami, Kim Chanbonpin, Andre Smith, Imani Perry, Andrea Dennis, and many others began publishing hip hop legal scholarship. The hip hop generation was coming of age, becoming professionals, including lawyers, law professors, teachers, doctors, politicians, and laborers, and it was clear that this influential cultural phenomenon deserved a close examination in the law school classroom. Hence, Hip Hop & the American Constitution, as a for-credit law school course, was inspired.
With that background, this article will proceed as follows: Part I describes the founding and implementation of the first-ever Hip Hop & the American Constitution course offered in a law school classroom. Part II reviews the course content of a Hip Hop and the Law class and defines its pedagogical goals, philosophy, and assessment mechanisms. Part III examines whether this Hip Hop and the Law class meets its pedagogical goals and philosophy by illustrating in great specificity the experienced student outcomes from such a course. Part IV then seeks to answer the question posed at the top of this article, “Why Teach a Course in Hip Hop and the Law?” Part V details how teaching social justice principles is possible within a Hip Hop and the Law course, providing interested law school faculty members guidance in replicating the experience as described herein. Thereafter, the Article concludes.
[. . .]
III. HIP HOP THAT LOVES REGARDLESS
In Chicagoan noname's “Diddy Bop,” she opens the verse and bridge with:
This sound like Mississippi sippy cup, daddy turn bibby up Henny invented the catalyst for happiness in my cup
This sound like kiddies on the playground when mama was running up
Ooooooh, you about to get your ass beat
This sound like niggas complaining when their bitches like Raz-B
B2K in the stereo, we juke in the back seat
Or juke in the basement, in love with my KSWISS's
This feel like jumping in a pool and I'm knowing I can't swim
Ooooooh, you about to get your ass beat
For stealing that twenty dollars like “baby, just ask me”
Mama say she love, love, loved us
When the lights was off we had to stay with cousins
Granny at the BBQ with petty ass husband
Summertime, city life, Chi-town, my town, my town
After school matters like I'm needing that stipend right now
Kennicott parking lot got caught with the blunt like “wow wow”
Run, run, run, mama say come home before the streetlights do
Ice cream on my front porch in my new FUBU and my A1's too
Watching my happy block my whole neighborhood hit the diddy bop
The song is a celebration of Chicago and noname's neighborhood, despite witnessing “ass beat[ings]”, the City shutting down her utilities, and not liking some of her relatives. For noname, there is nothing that can make her not love “music ... dance ... the moon ... the spirit ... love and food and roundness ... struggle ... the Folk ... herself.” She “Loves. Regardless.” In becoming a carefree Black girl, in a world that demands so much of Black womxn, noname subverts white feminist expectations, as do all the aforementioned songs.
Associate Professor of Law, University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. J.D., Howard University School of Law.
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