Feb. 28, 2017 — The merits of hip-hop music as a sociopolitical form of activism were discussed recently at a Black History Month presentation at the University of Houston Law Center.
The keynote speaker was Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law and the author of "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice." The lecture was sponsored by Dean Leonard M. Baynes, and the UH Law Alumni Association's Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
"Black History Month is important because it celebrates the history of African-Americans in the United States," Dean Leonard M. Baynes states in his welcoming remarks. "It discusses the struggles that African-Americans have faced. Professor Butler is one of the foremost scholars on issues of race and criminal justice, and we're pleased the Law Center could provide a forum for a discussion on these issues."
The focus of Butler's talk was hip-hop's examination of criminal justice, and he played excerpts from songs by popular artists such as 2Pac, Beyoncé, J. Cole, Jay-Z, J. Kendrick Lamar and KRS-One.
"We're at an amazing moment in American history," Butler said. "When we listen to the radio, when we dance at the club, and when we watch music videos, we're listening to a critique of the state."
Butler pointed to themes in hip-hop culture that honor prison inmates. He said the over-incarceration of black men has changed attitudes about being arrested or sentenced to prison.
"Hip-hop fashion started as a tribute to prison inmates, but the music even more than the fashion is obsessed with criminal justice," Butler said. "We're supposed to be disgusted with people who the law labels as criminals. What's happened is that we have used prison promiscuously. Rap music depicts getting arrested as a rite of passage. Hip-hop rejects the stigma that the criminal justice system tries to assign to black men."
The distribution and use of illicit narcotics is also a popular trope in hip-hop. Butler shed light on how alcohol is treated compared to other illegal substances.
"Some people say that hip-hop glorifies drugs. That's partly true," Butler said. "It definitely glorifies marijuana and certain expensive kinds of liquor. The most vilified drug in hip-hop is the 40 oz. – a large can of beer sold almost exclusively in poor neighborhoods.
"How do we handle people who have problems with alcohol? We use the health care system to treat the alcoholics, and we license the sellers. That's not how we handle other drugs."
Butler ended his talk by asserting that hip-hop will always remain a viable form of counterculture as long as the justice system continues to work under its current makeup.
"The determination of who goes to criminal court in chains should not be so fortuitous," Butler said. "It shouldn't depend so much on race, class, the color of your skin, or how much money your parents make. As long as it does, we need to listen to hip-hop."
David R. Dow, Cullen Professor of Law at the Law Center, was the first speaker in a panel discussion that followed Butler's lecture. While agreeing with Butler, he said he was skeptical about hip-hop's role in effecting change in the criminal justice system.
"There is profound truth in some hip-hop lyrics," Dow said. "From my perspective the question of whether there is truth about race relations in hip-hop is very different from the question of whether those truths can be used to forge a new justice system."
Law Center Professor Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and interim president of UH-Downtown, sees parallels between hip-hop and other genres of music, including the rise of narcocorridos — traditional Mexican ballads that romanticize the acts of drug traffickers.
"If you go on YouTube, you will find 18 corridos to El Chapo, one of the most dangerous accused criminals we've ever had, who has wielded his influence in ways that have destroyed many communities," Olivas said.
Additional panelists included Dr. James L. Conyers, director of the African-American Studies program at the University of Houston, and U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore '81, the Law Center's first graduate to be appointed to the federal bench.
"Professor Butler's presentation was fresh and exciting and challenged us to consider the impact of hip-hop on thoughts about the criminal justice system," Gilmore said. "It encouraged us to look at ways to respect and analyze the discontent expressed in this music genre and to use it to consider new solutions for criminal justice reform. Professor Butler's book is a must-read for anyone working on criminal justice issues."
"Hip-hop can be used as a tool because it's part of pop culture and we should be tuned into it," Conyers added. "If you aren't, you're going to miss verbal and non-verbal communication. What Professor Butler addressed was accurate – hip-hop is needed. You have to stretch yourself and use alternative instruments of evaluation to see where we're at in current times."
The lecture concluded with a question and answer session and a book signing. Attendees were also able to explore a pop-up exhibit from the University of Houston's Hip Hop Special Collection that features albums from legendary Houston artists.