Hip-Hop and the Law: Law as Police

Jay-Z and the Law

Welcome to the first article in the “Hip-Hop and the Law” series, which uses hip-hop as an entry point to discuss significant legal issues from unconventional perspectives, an objective not very different from Hip-Hop Law.  For my  first exploration of hip-hop and the law, I decided to focus on the way “the law” is often used as a synonym for law enforcement or police officers in rap music. Consider the following three examples of “the law” as a synonym for police:
The year is ninety-four, in my trunk is raw
In my rearview mirror is the [expletive] law
– Jay-Z, 99 Problems (2003)
Making [expletive] hate me from a distance
Hopping fences in an instant, trying to get away from the long arm of the law
– Z-Ro, Get Yo Paper (2002)
By the way they’re runnin’, you would swear the law was comin
– Eminem, Run Rabbit Run (2003)

From the above examples we can learn a great deal about the perception of “the law” within hip-hop discourse.  For instance, note that the subject in rap music is often on the punitive end of the law, interacting with the law as a mechanism of control that conflicts with the behaviors, actions, and often happiness of the subject.  The law, then, is not of the subject, of hip-hop culture, or the individuals and communities that comprise a hip-hop collective; instead, the law is an external agent that enters a community not to serve or protect, but to punish.

Another important observation to glean is that in hip-hop discourse the law is often defined by its frontline enforcers: police officers.  That the law can be reduced to police officers in hip-hop discourse indicates a lack of engagement of the law’s other elements: judges, politicians, lawyers, civil2pac arrestedsociety organizations, lobbyists, and others.  To many communities, police officers are the only representatives of the law that are seen and heard directly.

So for individuals and communities that are reflected by or even produce hip-hop discourse, the law is experienced in a way that does not always lend itself to thinking of the law as an academic field, a source of employment, a malleable tool of protecting and bettering society, or an arena through which society is guided and driven, or the multiple other manifestations of the law distinct from police officers.

We may gain from this is an appreciation of diversity that brings different experiences and understandings of the law to the table, but perhaps more pertinent is recognizing the power that those of us who engage with the law through roles outside of law enforcement have the potential to redefine the law in different, more nurturing and comprehensive ways to communities who see law as police (i.e. low-income and, or minority communities).  Popular education initiatives, public speaking in relevant venues, and mentoring of youth are three efforts to achieve such redefinition that I have personally seen work.

Determine where you fit in and play your position.

About the Author

Jamil Jivani
Born and raised in the world’s most multicultural city, Toronto, Jamil Jivani is a first generation African-Canadian and York University and Humber College graduate with a BA in International Development Studies and Non-Profit Management. In addition to contributing to initiatives like the Road to Independence program based in Nairobi, Kenya, Jamil’s interests include combat sports and hip-hop culture. Jamil is currently pursuing his J.D. as part of Yale Law School’s Class of 2013.