A Hip-Hop Theory of Legal Reform

George Washington University law professor Paul Butler is gaining popularity in the music and unorthodox legal circles by challenging listeners to use hip-hop to reform the criminal justice system.  As both a law student and hip-hop enthusiast, I am particularly intrigued by Butler’s work.  Although Butler’s work focuses primarily on changing the criminal justice system, it can interestingly change how society views and values music.

The hip-hop culture has come to mean exactly what its name suggests – it’s the definition of a culture.  Although hip-hop originally appealed to Black and Latino communities, it now appeals to billions of people around the world and from just about every background.  As hip-hop has become extremely diverse, the culture has grown to influence how Americans think and act.  Since most of hip-hop’s chart topping and popular artists have rhymed about being in prison, getting arrested or attacked the legal system, younger generations are learning about the justice system through music.

If you listen to just about any hip-hop album, you will undoubtedly understand what I mean.  This informal legal education has changed the way society views criminal justice.  Society – young minorities in particular – are no longer condemning someone with a record.  There are so many people being arrested on fabricated charges or as a result of racial profiling, that getting arrested or serving a jail/prison sentence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Since society no longer sees the justice system as a method of retribution, the criminal justice system becomes ineffective and no longer serves an adequate public interest.

Butler outlines the different ways that hip-hop can change the justice system.  Butler also remains realistic when speaking about how his theory will be applied in order to create change.  Butler states that legislatures will not listen to music and then have an epiphany guiding them towards change.   The change will come when the fans become more active in voting, writing their politicians, and fighting for legal reform.

I think that Butler is on point, especially in light of the historical voter turn out and hip-hop references made in the 2008 Presidential race.  Younger generations are realizing the effects that they can have, and are becoming more vocal about their concerns and the changes they seek – whether orally, visually, digitally or textually.  Furthermore, younger generations actively seek political and community leaders who appeal and relate to them.

All forms of music have the potential to create legal reform, similar to Butler’s theory.  This potential will come to fruition as music becomes more accessible to perspective listeners.  As musicians like Eminem, Green Day, Public Enemy and Diddy already speak out publicly about injustices, future political changes will only solidify the impact that music has on society.  It is no longer improbable that hip-hop can, and will, help to change the world.


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