Lawyers solve concrete legal problems on basis of certain presuppositions about morality, legality and justice that are not always shared by non-lawyers. This is why a thriving part of academic scholarship deals with what we can learn about laymen’s perceptions of law from studying novels (law and literature) or other types of popular culture. This article offers an inventory and analysis of how the law is perceived in a representative sample of hip-hop lyrics from fiveUS artists (Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Ludacris and Jay-Z) and 6 UK artists (Ms Dynamite, Dizzee Rascal, Plan B, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and N-Dubz).
After a methodological part, the article identifies four principles of hip-hop law. First, criminal justice is based on the age-old adage of an eye for an eye, reflecting the desire to retaliate proportionately. Second, self-justice and self-government reign supreme in a hip-hop version of the law: instead of waiting for a presumably inaccurate community response, it is allowed to take the law into one’s own hands. Third, there is an overriding obligation to respect others within the hip-hop community: any form of ‘dissing’ will be severely punished. Finally, the law is seen as an instrument to be used to one’s advantage where possible, and to be ignored if not useful. All four principles can be related to a view of the law as a way to survive in the urban jungle.The authors comment that
There is a growing interest in the relationship between popular music and the law. Building upon the success of the law and literature-movement, an increasing number of authors investigate how law and popular culture, including music, interrelate. Articles were already written on references to the law in lyrics by musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen. It is in this respect surprising that the interest in the interrelationship between hip-hop music and the law is lagging behind. Although hip-hop has become one of the most popular types of popular music, and its lyrics contain frequent references to the law, there has never been a systematic cross-country study of law and hip-hop. This article intends to fill this vacuum by offering an inventory and analysis of how the law is perceived in lyrics of a number of important American and British hip-hop artists.
There are at least four ways in which hip-hop and the law can be related to each other. First, and most important in our view, hip-hop lyrics can inform us about an alternative perception of the law. While official institutions such as legislatures and courts express a mainstream view of the law, hip-hop lyrics convey how the law is understood in an influential subculture. In much the same way as the law and literature-movement claims that reading novels can provide us with a narrative that is missed in a traditional account of the law, listening to hip-hop lyrics helps us to understand how law can be seen differently. Thousands of available lyrics inform us about life in the urban ghettos of today and thus provide information about law in a bottom up way that is otherwise very difficult to access. Put differently: lyrics provide insights that could otherwise only become available through time-consuming sociological or anthropological research.
Second, knowledge about how the law is represented in hip-hop music can be important to understand the behaviour of an individual claimant or defendant. Popular culture in the form of literature, films, television series and music affects a layperson’s perception of the law. It thus often adds to the emancipation of the layperson’s legal mind in a much better way than the official institutions could ever do. The general audience is for example well aware of the rights it has when being arrested as a result of the many television series and films in which the police actually reads the defendant his or her rights. A better understanding of where individuals derive their legal knowledge from – even if based on false information – can be useful to the judiciary when making decisions.
Third, reading hip-hop lyrics can also be relevant for a view of what the law ought to be like. Butler rightly remarks for the area of criminal justice that if we adopt the perspective of John Rawls’ philosophy of law, the ‘hip-hop nation’ is best situated to design a regime for the punishment of criminals. If law is the most just if it is designed by people who do not know in advance what their place in society will be – as Rawls claims – minority groups such as rappers surviving in the urban ghetto (or those associating themselves with them) are much better able to imagine a fair criminal system than well-educated members of parliament or high ranking judges who are themselves less likely to be affected by the justice system. Hip-hop artists are in the best position to narrate about the thin line between being a victim and an offender, suggesting that their ideal legal system would value both positions.
Finally, hip-hop and the law are related when the question needs to be answered whether lyrics can be admitted as criminal evidence. If lyrics are seen as autobiographical, and thus depict real life events, they can play a role in revealing the criminal intent of the defendant. This use of hip-hop lyrics is commonly accepted in the United States courts. For example, in the case of United States v Foster, the defendant was caught carrying two suitcases full of drugs. The police found a handwritten rap lyric in his bag containing the sentence "Key for Key, Pound for Pound, I’m the biggest Dope Dealer and I serve all over town". This line was accepted as evidence for the defendant’s intention to distribute drugs. The focus in this article is on the first and third aspect. Our aim is to investigate whether it is possible to find legal principles immanent in hip-hop lyrics. If the creation of a legal system were left to rappers, what would this system look like and in what way would it differ from existing legal systems? We do not assume a coherent and largely uniform view of the law in all varieties of hip-hop produced around the world, but we do believe that the artists we selected are representative for the hip-hop movement. After an explanation of our methodology (section 2), we proceed with an identification of the principles we were able to identify in the reviewed lyrics (section 3).Section 4 concludes.They conclude -
The aim of this article is to offer an inventory and analysis of how the law is perceived in a representative sample of hip-hop lyrics. Our analysis shows that four main principles would be part of a legal system designed by hip-hop artists. First, criminal justice is based on the age-old adage of an eye for an eye, reflecting the desire to retaliate proportionately against any offense. Second, self-justice and self-government reign supreme in a hip-hop version of the law: instead of waiting for an inaccurate community response, it is allowed to take the law into one’s own hands. Third, there is an overriding obligation to respect anyone else within the hip-hop community, meaning that any ‘dissing’ is not allowed and will be severely punished. Finally, the law is seen as an instrument to be used to one’s advantage wherever possible and to be ignored if not considered useful.
The question remains what overall view of justice the lyrics reflect. We believe that Professor Green is a keen observer of the philosophy underlying the four principles. In his song ‘Jungle’ (2010), he raps that there is no point in being a law-abiding citizen in a city in which it is all about the survival of the fittest by preying on the weak. He sings that particularly on council estates people act like animals and stab, shoot and beat each other. "I see no point in living life that right, so I just take what I can find (…) Welcome to Hackney, a place where I think somebody’s been playing Jumanji58 / A Manor where man are like animals, an’ they'll yam on you like they yam on food / Cats with claws that’ll stab a yout’, act bad an’ catch a slap or two". His American colleague 50 Cent also refers to a jungle-like society: "So chances are, I’ma have to blast me a nigga / I’m on that kevlar vest shit, that wild wild west shit". If we look at the law as a way to survive, setting and enforcing norms that allow people to make a living and to be protected against crime, the absence of this type of protection prompts the need to survive in another way. The four principles reflect this: they come to the surface in the absence of laws that are State enforced and regarded as fair by the community. In this respect, hip-hop law shows an interesting parallel with societies in which there is no effective government control to be relied upon by the citizens. The norms prevailing in the American Wild West offer an example. This ‘Code of the West’ entailed that one could violate any State laws as long as one upheld the unwritten Code among cowmen. Violation led to the grave sanction of becoming an outcast and, as a consequence, a lesser chance to survive.
Seen from this perspective, each of the identified principles contributes to survival in a lawless community (or one that is experienced as such by its inhabitants). This needs little explanation for the principles of an eye for an eye and of self-justice, but also the high degree of respect due to fellow community members adds to one’s survival: it helps to create a closer community of people one can unconditionally trust. In a society without enforced State law, there is a need to replace the law with clear indicia of a person’s good will: not dissing anyone can be seen as such. The fourth principle is not consistent with a mainstream view of the law, but it can also be readily explained out of the need to survive in the urban jungle: the use of the law to one’s advantage is not based on some moral consideration, but simply on the fact that one profits from it.