Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment

By Butler, Paul | Stanford Law Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment


Butler, Paul, Stanford Law Review


INTRODUCTION: THE HIP-HOP NATION
I. POPULAR CULTURE AND CRIMINAL LAW
II. HIP-HOP 101
   A. Hip-Hop's Influence: Consumers
   B. The Academy
   C. Hip-Hop as a Political Movement
   D. The Limits of Hip-Hop's Influence
III. HIP-HOP AND SOCIAL NORMS
IV. PUNISHMENT: THE REMIX
   A. Why Punish?
     1. Retribution and respect in hip-hop
     2. Hip-hop utility: Third party interests and the effects of mass
        incarceration.
   B. What to Punish?
     1. Who's bad?
     2. Hip-hop and drugs: Keeping it real
   C. How to Punish?
     1. Punishment from inside
     2. Prison
CONCLUSION: WORD IS BORN

   If I ruled the world, imagine that ...
   I'd open every cell in Attica, send 'em to Africa....
   If I ruled the world, imagine that
   I'd free all my sons, I'd love 'em love 'em baby
   --Nas (1)

INTRODUCTION: THE HIP-HOP NATION (2)

This Article imagines the institution of punishment in the hip-hop nation. My thesis is that hip-hop can be used to inform a theory of punishment that is coherent, that enhances public safety, and that treats lawbreakers with respect. Hip-hop can improve the ideology and administration of justice in the United States.

For some time the debate about why people should be punished has been old school: Each one of four theories of punishment--retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation--has acceded to prominence, and then lost its luster. Hip-hop offers a fresh approach. It first seems to embrace retribution. The "unwritten law in rap," according to Jay-Z, is that "if you shoot my dog, I'ma kill yo' cat ... know dat/For every action there's a reaction." (3)

Next, however, comes the remix. Hip-hop takes punishment personally. Many people in the hip-hop nation have been locked up or have loved ones who have been. Punishment is an exercise of the state's police power, but it also implicates intimate family relationships. "Shout outs" to inmates--expressions of love and respect to them--are commonplace in the music and visual art. You understand criminal justice differently when the people that you love experience being "locked down all day, underground, neva seein' the sun/ Vision stripped from you, neva seein' your son." (4)

The hip-hop theory of punishment acknowledges that when too many people are absent from their communities because they are being condemned by the government, prison may have unintended consequences. Retribution must be the object of punishment, but it should be limited by important social interests. In a remarkable moment in American history, popular music is weighing the costs and benefits of punishment. As we listen to the radio, watch music videos, dance at clubs, or wear the latest fashion, we receive a message from the "black CNN." (5) Hip-hop exposes the current punishment regime as profoundly unfair. It demonstrates this view by, if not glorifying law breakers, at least not viewing all criminals with the disgust which the law seeks to attach to them. Hip-hop points out the incoherence of the law's construct of crime, and it attacks the legitimacy of the system. Its message has the potential to transform justice in the United States.

Hip-hop already has had a significant social impact. It is the second best-selling genre of music in the United States. (6) The culture transcends rap music: It includes television, movies, fashion, theater, dance, and visual art. Hip-hop is also big business: Estimates of its contribution to the U.S. economy range to the billions. (7) Increasingly, hip-hop is also a political movement.

Hip-hop foreshadows the future of the United States--one in which no racial group will constitute a majority. (8) It is the most diverse form of American popular culture. The most commercially successful hip-hop artists in the United States are black, though there are popular white and Latino acts as well. (9) The consumers are mainly non-black. (10) The producers are Asian, black, Latino, and white--and combinations of all of those. …

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