Police State: Hip-hop, punishment and the prison industrial complex
By Luis Rivas
“Guilty or innocent agents of government
Treat our hoods like pickin’ grounds (schools to tenements)
All sag in uniform as thugs they represent
Racial stereotypes a profile for the aggressed
When you witness genocide everyday you get the hint
That the ghettos are cold like a lab experiment
As young women and men street hustle before they’re 10
Graduating from juvenile halls then up the river to the
Prison, prison, prison, prison…”
– X Clan’s “Prison” from their 2007 album “Return from Mecca“
When critically acclaimed black nationalist Brooklyn-based hip-hop group X Clan released their 2007 22-track album “Return from Mecca” after several reunions and side projects, the 10th track simply titled “Prisons” spoke on the injustices of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Activists, in and out of hip-hop, have added significantly to the movements to reform or advocate for the abolishing of prisons.
Law professor at The George Washington University Law School and hip-hop cultural critic, Paul Butler, makes the case that hip-hop culture actually has beneficial philosophies of punishment. There are four theories of punishment — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation – according to Butler.
As for the importance of hip-hop, it has to be stated and re-stated constantly that this culture acts as both a broadcasting media giant, delivering news, some of if fictionalized, some of it important. This is why Chuck D of Public Enemy once called rap the “Black CNN,” according to Butler’s article.
Simply stated, good or bad, hip-hop is a universal language, a universal culture. It was birthed from the beauty, grime, art, poetry and violence of the South Bronx, and it is everywhere.
Prison culture and hip-hop’s adherence to retributive philosophy
Retributive philosophy, as defined by Butler, is the idea that if people have the agency, the will, to do good and nonetheless choose to do harm, they ought to be punished (1004). Central to Butler’s writings is the idea that punishment is not inherently bad, and that hip-hop’s usage of punishment has some valid merit that should be applied to society at large, with some tweaking here and there of course.
It is evident that hip-hop has created a space within it to promote a self-congratulatory environment for prison culture. “Hip-hop justifies rather than excuses some criminal conduct. Breaking the law is seen as a form of rebelling against the oppressive status quo. Rappers who brag about doing time are like old soldiers who boast of war sounds” (Butler 998).
Instead of being blatantly against punishment, systemic or by an individual, hip-hop is more forgiving, willing to make a space accommodating prisoners, for those that have been, will be or should be punished. Three beliefs of punishment within the hip-hop community are as such: retribution, humanizing criminals and the ripple effects of crime and punishment within the community (Butler 999).
It’s overly simplistic and flat-out wrong to claim that Butler, or for that matter the entire hip-hop community, is adherent to a homogenous disciplinarian method of learning and punishment. But it would be equally wrong to overlook the commitment to values of punishment that range from low-level to extreme retribution. One would notice certain nearly-consistent patterns, such as the values of honesty, accountability (collective and individual) and honor are prevalent in much of hip-hop.
The role of prisons
“The average Black male
Live a third of his life in a jail cell
Cause the world is controlled by the white male
And the people don’t never get justice
And the women don’t never get respected
And the problems don’t never get solved
And the jobs don’ never pay enough
So the rent always be late
Can you relate?
We living in a police state”
Dead Prez’s “Police State” from their 2000 album “Let’s Get Free!”
But when we talk about retribution on a state level, prisons are a natural progression in systematic discipline—but under a capitalist system formed on the solid foundation of white supremacy, the role of prisons must therefore be questioned.
In Dipannita Basu’s article, “Hip Hop: Cultural Clout, Corporate Control, and the ‘Carceral Cast,” from the acclaimed anthology The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture, follows the story of Lil’ Slim and T-Bone, two hip-hop entrepreneurs that were eventually incarcerated after a series of misgivings that highlighted their racial and class position within a market-driven society that ruthlessly disposes of black and brown bodies. The article goes on to examine the ingrained racism that perpetuates the dehumanization of communities of color, but particularly started at an early age in black communities:
Within this social construction, Black lower-class youth are commonly perceived as perpetuators of crime and criminal miscreants (never victims). Consequently they are systematically treated as if they are deserving only of detention centers, jails, holding cells, and prisons—even in schools (Basu 36).
People in general, but especially some of the most marginalized which are people of color, need to survive under capitalism. Critical scholar Robin D.G. Kelley analyzes how African-American and other youth of color, within a postindustrial society, used the mechanism and culture of hip-hop (he refers to this and any other unconventional way of getting paid as “play-labor”) as a means of entrepreneurship (45-45).
What appears as a way of emancipating oneself by making his or her play pay, what it ends up doing is merely serving the overall profit-based system of capitalism. And when these youths are caught embracing some of the tenants of hip-hop culture such as graffiti writing, what waits for them as a cold-hard lesson of capitalist punishment is a jail cell.
A peculiar institution by any other name
The over-representation of black and brown people behind bars is well-documented. According the criminal justice reform advocate The Sentencing Project., one out of 10 African-American males in their 30s are currently in prison or jail on any given day. Federal laws that differentiate between crack and powder cocaine are another example of structural injustice. Furthermore, in 2006 82 percent of people convicted under federal crack cocaine laws were African-Americans.
But if you were to factor in Latinos, the percentage increases to 96 percent, according to the NAACP. And between 1980 and 2000, nearly 40,000 African-American men were sent to California prisons—all while less than 10 percent (3,800) were sent into higher education institutions (Basu 43-44). The article goes on to say, “Alarmingly, if incarceration rates and racial disparities continue at their current rate, female members of the generation growing up in the 1990s will be five times more likely to go to prison than the generation that came of age in the 1970s (Basu 44).”
Michelle Alexander, author of the critically acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness,” argues that systematic oppression against African-Americans never went away, but rather evolved, changed shaped and became more subtle. Instead of public lynching, or segregation, blatantly anti-black laws and policies, we are living in an age where more African-Americans are in the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850. And at the core of all of this are the laws, the foundation of the criminal justice system, the legacy of racism that influenced and continues to influence indiscriminate laws that target the poor communities of color.
So, in spite of whatever theorizing and much-needed dialogue is happening within the hip-hop community, utilizing the prison industrial complex as a viable method of punishment cannot exist as it currently stands. And I would argue that it cannot be reformed.
My position on prison and the criminal justice system is similar to former Black Panther, Communist Party, USA, member and UC Santa Cruz retired professor Angela Davis’s stance on the PIC: that it has become obsolete. Prisons, but specifically private prisons, in the age of a decaying capitalist system are one of the last fronts capitalist prosperity: of secured investments, record profits, stable supply, stable demand, extremely cheap labor that challenges third-world wages, according to Davis. Many private companies are taking advantage of cheap prison labor:
Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by U.S.-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor. Nordstrom department stores sell jeans that are marketed as “Prison Blues,” as well as t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons. The advertising slogan for these clothes is “made on the inside to be worn on the outside.” Maryland prisoners inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, and schools throughout the world buy graduation caps and gowns made by South Carolina prisoners (“Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”).
The VH1 2011 documentary “Planet Rock: the Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation” traces the destructive effects of crack cocaine within poor communities of color and the role that hip-hop played in all of it; many rappers, coming from areas affected by poverty, drugs and gangs, rapped about this reality. It ranged between critically calling the community to not take part in the crack game. Some artists such as Public Enemy, Mobstyle, Grandmaster Flash and others spoke out against crack. While others such as Eazy-E, Biggie and others varies from glamorizing drug dealing to simply reiterating their realties (Bogazianos 122).
The structure of society
The political economy of society ultimately determines our mindset; in other words, the values of society are traced to two components: superstructure and base. In Marxist theory the superstructure refers to the culture of society, its values, institutions, political power—in other words, its hegemony. The base refers to the material conditions of a society: worker-owner relationships, division of labor. Hip-hop, as a culture, is part of the superstructure of our society. But hip-hop came from material reality that there was a lack of employment, high crime rates, poverty and violence in urban communities—so the base influences the superstructure, but the opposite is also true.
This is one, if not the main reason, we see most of mainstream hip-hop as mysognist, homophobic, capitalistic and patriarchal. It is merely reflecting the values of society’s hegemonic values. But this is not to say that it should not be challenged. Surely, it has to, and it has been and continues to be challenged.
I say this only to point out that it is much harder for anyone to go against the comfortable current of society than it is to simply go with the flow.
When hip-hop creates a space to critically analyze our economic structure—which is the core of most of the injustices of not only our society but the world—then it is an attempt in creating a counter-hegemony, as Italian communist and cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci has said.
Ethnic studies professor at the University of Oregon Charise Cheney cautions people not to assume that all hip-hop is political expression—although I would argue that everything, even the absence of supposedly overt politics, is by itself a political act—but we must remember French philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of creating an “insurrection of subjugated knowledge” (285).
Hip-hop is the perfect place for this, as this blog’s core premise argues.
During our Politics of Hip-Hip class we broke out into groups and developed mission statements and ideas as to how Butler’s theory of punishment can survive and be applicable in our contemporary or future society. Here is what my group wrote:
The current method of punishment in society is biased towards the economically challenged, vulnerable, powerless, like drug offenders and gang members who get drawn into dangerous lifestyles based on their habitat while those who own all the capital and run the country receive little to no punishment that can often times be paid off with the money they stole so diligently from the economically challenged. For the powerful we reserve the most extreme form of punishment, which is retribution. The idea is that the economically powerful individuals and businesses should set the example for all those who live beside them. Their actions will have wider repercussion. In general, people have the idea that the more money you have, the more you get away with. The point is to reverse this logic. Over time those who are economically challenged will aspire less to be greedy sociopaths as well causing everyone in every demographic to treat each other with higher value.
What we were trying to convey in this mission statement is that the idea of retribution in it and of itself is not bad; it can be used for the benefit of reshaping the superstructure of a future society, that is, of newer and better cultural and social values.
As Lenin said, ‘What is to be Done?’
Hip-hop may very well actually be the key in changing our political economy, of changing our society and therefore of fighting to either abolish or radical reform prisons in this country. As a global culture with multiple languages and limitless reach, as a vehicle democratically maneuverable by virtually anyone that yearns to be heard and create, hip-hop has endless capabilities.
As Angela Ars states in her article “Organizing the Hip-Hop Generation” from That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, groups are already organizing around fighting the PIC. Former Nation of Islam minister Conrad Muhammad started the Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment and several other organizations have focused proactively in bridging the gaps between hip-hop and prison reform activism. Some groups include The Coup, The Prison Moratorium Project, Atlanta-based Youth Task Force, the Bay Area Third Eye Movement, Dead Prez as well as hundreds of others (Ars 313).
Her article ends with a perfect quote where 15-year-old Dontario Givens speaks on empathy and the necessity for organizing. Givens is asked what he would want the world to do if he were Mumia Abu Jamal, former Black Panther and radical journalist currently serving a life sentence who up until recently was on death row.
He responds, “Come together and make the revolution” (Ars 323).
Ards, Angela. “Organizing the Hip-Hop Generation.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 312-313. Print.
Basu, Dipannita. “Hip Hop: Cultural Clout, Corporate Control, and the ‘Carceral Cast.’” The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. Ed. Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle. London: Pluto Press, 2006. Print.
Bogazianos, Dimitri A. 5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
Butler, Paul. “Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment.” Stanford Law Review.Vol 56:983 (2004). Print.
Cheney, Charise. “In Search of the Revolutionary Generation: (En)Gendering the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism.” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, The History of Hip Hop (Summer, 2005). 278-298. Print.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Print.
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and Crack. Dir. Richard Lowe and Martin Torgoff. Too $hort, Michelle Alexander, B-Real. VH1, 2011.