The Rap Rhetorics Student Blog Part 2: Police Violence, The War on Drugs, and Mass Incarceration
Updated: Apr 6
Hello and welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog where, today, we are continuing our five-part series highlighting student writing from my Rap Rhetorics first-year writing courses. Last time we read what students had to say about the so-called American “Dream” (or nightmare) as the theme appears across political oratory, Hip-Hop texts, and digital media. The discussion concluded with an important idea–while American history features countless narratives of Black oppression, Hip-Hop is, in part, dedicated to preserving some of those lesser known, but equally prevalent, stories of Black resistance.
Today, I’ll jump right in and let the student writing speak for itself.
Martin Luther King jr., one of the most profound and well-known leaders of the civil rights movement, issued a speech called the “I have a dream” speech which he gave on August 28th, 1963, at the march on Washington event. During this speech, Dr. King said, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
From the 1960s, police brutality was a catalyst for many of the race riots that took place in Urban America. This included the Watts Riots of 1965 and the Detroit Riot of 1967. One year later, The Trenton Riots of 1968 would see 200 businesses in downtown Memphis, TN after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. America's history is a history of race and class, a brutal struggle to survive.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had been observing the non-violent protests that others in the Black community were taking part in to liberate themselves. Newton and Seale concluded that the non-violent tactics were never going to be successful, as violence against protestors and police brutality continued to plague the activists. They created the Ten Point Platform, which were the demands that were foundational to the cause of the Panthers. Point seven states “We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people” by which they stated the need for action to protect members of the African American community by any means necessary.
Huey Newton once said, “Laws should be made to serve the people. People should not be made to serve the laws.” This implies that the justice and legislative system is one that institutionalizes the manipulation and use of the American populace to promote goals that are not in the best interest of the general public.
These feelings would further propagate through future generations, specifically through the new media of Hip-Hop. Chicago rapper Common released “A Song for Assata” as one critically acclaimed example reflecting on this era in America’s history. The song describes the story of Assata Shakur, prominent Black Panther member (and step-aunt to Tupac Shakur!) who, in 1977, was convicted of the murder of a US trooper. Common raps about the incident, describing police violence against Black people who are defenseless, cooperative, and, by the way, wrongfully convicted with little to no substantial evidence.
“No room to rest, pain consumed each breath
Shot twice with her hands up
Police questioned but shot before she answered
One Panther lost his life, the other ran for his
Scandalous the police were as they kicked and beat her”
The song ends with a powerful and striking statement from Assata, describing how she doesn’t know much about freedom because she has never experienced it. She says, “You're asking me about freedom? I'll be honest with you. I know a whole lot more about what freedom isn't than about what it is, because I've never been free.”
Hip-Hop music is a method of showing “devotion to local resilience and skepticism towards authority” (Adams, 16), and uniting the black community and its activist groups against a government that was trying to tear them apart. Hip-Hop is a testament to Black pride and strength, and provided a window for ”diverse local scenes” (Adams,16) of artists to both advocate and express their personal thoughts, especially as Hip-Hop gained its popularity in mainstream media. With hip hop’s accessibility and diversity in its artists, the music “remains close to vibrant local youth movements, representing the voices of the margins” (Adams, 18), especially for women, amplifying the power that music has in raising awareness of social issues and calling the listeners to action to fight it.
Police violence is no exception to those social issues, as this theme manifests in many hip hop
songs. Artists tackle this idea to break down the effect police violence has on the ambiance of neighborhoods, and to also raise awareness of these injustices. With this, they encourage listeners to take action towards fighting for a more equitable policing system.
Police violence dates back to the 1900s when African Americans became targeted as criminals
once they began mass migrating to urban areas. This “discriminatory policing” was based on
racist stereotyping that black people are inherently violent and must be under police control, in
order to “protect” the white community (Moore, 3). From the very moment that African
Americans set foot in cities for better lives, they already became criminalized, creating a cycle
of poverty and hardship that would last for decades to come. Just last year, according to the
Washington Post, 1,034 people were killed from police violence. African Americans are
reportedly “killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans,” despite making up
less than 13% of Americans (Tate, 5). A study reveals that 55% of police brutality deaths from
1980 to 2018 were also “misclassified or underreported in official vital statistics reports” (“The
Lancet,” 1). African Americans are killed at a much higher rate than any other group in the US,
perhaps higher than statistics report, showing just how their community is targeted.
Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” proves to be a cautionary tale mirroring what many African Americans have been exposed to from early childhood. The artist helps the listener visualize the scene of two teenagers who fall into crime. One of the pair cannot seem to keep themself from the thrill of theft. This leads them down a road that ends with the thief being shot dead by a police officer. Though the artist is from England, this proves that the generational fear of police knows no borders. The teens in the story are no doubt guilty of their crimes, however, Slick Rick’s delivery of this tale shows that the police often will show no mercy.
Rather than blaming the entirety of the issue on the police force, Slick Rick takes a more realistic approach. Yes, there are instances in which African Americans are not innocent, but this rarely calls for the use of deadly force. Slick Rick takes the approach that many African American parents take in teaching their children to not give officers a reason to see them as a threat. In their eyes, if you do not do anything to make you stick out to law enforcement, then there is less of a chance that they may feel threatened by your presence.
There are many songs created to spread awareness and that speak directly to the police system or higher powers to do something about this problem. One example is “Fuck Tha Police” by rap group N.W.A. In this record, the group raps on how unfairly Black men and women are treated in this country. That the police will find any small reason to use violence upon you and arrest you. They speak on their many experiences with cops using their power unfairly. The song describes how N.W.A members were forced by police to lay face down in the street with guns to their heads. They were treated very poorly by the police and were treated like they weren't human beings. N.W.A was a group known to speak upon racial and discrimination type ideas that affected the African American community. They took their experiences and thus spoke on the idea of police brutality and shamed its existence.
In 1980 the Liberty City section of Miami erupted over the police killing of an unarmed African American man. During a three-day period 18 people were killed and some 1,000 arrested over the riot and more than 100 million dollars in property damage occurred. Twelve years later, the beating of Rodney King triggered the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, still considered the worst race riots in American history. It took six days and more than 50 people were killed and more than 2,300 were injured and property damage was estimated at about 1 billion.
In Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist,” he references police violence in the lines “You don't know what it's like to mind your business And get stopped by the cops and not know if you 'bout to die or not You worry 'bout your life, so you take mine” In these lines Lucas describes how African Americans are frequently stopped in the streets for no reason and have to fear for their lives because of how police officers automatically deem them suspicious.
In "Don't Shoot," Dave East provides a perspective on the African American experience with law enforcement that many can see themselves within. East explains being profiled from a young age as he would see other children get interrogated or even arrested on basketball courts for “fitting a description.” After telling his parents about this occurrence, they proceed to inform him to never cross paths with the police. Some years later, he is accused of stealing a jeep he and his friends were driving around in due to the color of their skin. Countless police officers assume African American teens to be “in the street” no matter the lives they may lead. Despite living an innocent life, Dave East outlines being fearful of the police at all ages, before unfortunately being shot by police officers as an adult.
The artist follows a timeline that many African American males have gone through or are currently going through. If nothing else, this text proves that no matter how brave or strong a Black man may feel, they all have the same primal fear for their lives when approached by police officers. Dave East allows the listener to interpret their own meaning from his lyrics, yet he portrays police officers as a “government-funded gang.” This description of the “boys in blue” is commonplace within the black community due to the intimidation tactics used by officers within low-income areas. East shows the nature of the police in looking to sabotage the success of African Americans at an early age by forcing them into a tainted record that most do not deserve.
In 1990, the UN passed an international law called Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials which requires all officers to use non-violent methods before resorting to lethal force.
No state in America follows international laws on lethal force.
This has resulted in the deaths of many people including George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. The problem is a lack of laws restricting the power of police officers. In fact, 9 states have no restrictions on the use of deadly force.
“Police State” by Dead Prez describes many of these violent problems rooted in racism and capitalism that exist within our society. The speakers in this song have not been murdered (yet) by the State–instead, they are incarcerated and forced to provide free labor. One repeated section of the song goes, “The average Black male, live a third of his life in a jail cell, 'cause the world is controlled by the white male.” While this statistic is exaggerated in the song, Black American males still spend three times the amount of time in jail as Hispanic and Caucasian males do, according to a 2008 study.
In Ronnie B. Tucker’s “The Color of Mass Incarceration,” the numbers of incarcerated African-Americans in the US are examined. Through the statistical analysis, Tucker claims that “so-called” justice systems have treated African-Americans unfairly when charged with the same criminal offenses as those of the majority population.” He also addresses the issue of the true purpose of mass incarceration of minorities, where he alludes that the prison-industrial complex may merely be an “institutional” means for the removal of African Americans from American society.
Though the 13th Amendment was passed to outlaw slavery, this inhumane act persevered through the American prison system. To exploit the loophole in the amendment, the South passed “Black Codes” which considered behaviors common to African Americans to be crimes. In this new age of slavery, law enforcement served as the new colonial force looking to apprehend as many African Americans as possible. This led to a continuous sweep of wrongful mass incarceration. These “slaves of the state” were nearly exclusively African American by the end of the 1870s. In the modern day, African Americans occupy nearly 40% of prisons on average despite only being 13% of the United States general population.
According to the American Bar Association, Black people accounted for 22 percent of
Americans who were shot and killed by police, while Black people account for only 13.4 percent
of our country’s total population. According to the same source, Black people make up 47% of
wrongful conviction exonerations, meaning 47% of wrongfully convicted Americans are Black.
In 1980 the amount of non violent drug offenses was at 50,000 people, in just 17 years in 1997 that number had jumped to 400,000 people. To date the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any other country in the world, with almost two million individuals behind bars. As of 2021 about 45% of drug related arrests were marijuana. Many individuals whose drug charges are legal now in their state still can’t get out until they do their designated time. The war on drugs is what made Americans' mass incarceration rates so high.
By heavily associating hippies and African-Americans with drugs and demonizing drugs through
propaganda, it gave officials an excuse to raid their communities and arrest people. In
KRS-One’s song “Sound of da Police” there is a line that says “You claim I’m selling crack, but
you be doing that.” This is in reference to how Black people are always targeted for drug arrests. Studies have shown that white children are just as likely to use drugs as black kids but black children are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it.
President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, and with his assumption of office came a new initiative to end the “War on Drugs” and “be tough on crime” which would ultimately turn out to be one of the most detrimental acts towards minority communities. This initiative started during Nixon’s time in office and was then carried through to the Reagan administration following his election in 1980.
Under President Ronald Reagan's administration, and the “War on Drugs” initiative, minority communities became an even bigger target for law enforcement. This initiative put a metaphorical bullseye on low-income communities of color, who were already seen as being up to no good or seen as stereotypical thugs. The harassment of minority people following this was up to record-breaking numbers. Oftentimes, survivors of these targeted attacks by law enforcement were often tried and unjustly sentenced to serve unnecessarily long sentences for non-violent crimes, even going so far as to say crimes that they did not commit.
On his song “Reagan',' Killer Mike speaks on corruption of the American government. He draws a comparison between the war on terror, and the war on drugs as there was an underlying motive behind the both of them.
“They declared a war on drugs, like a war on terror
But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly black boys, but they would call us "n****rs"
And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and moneys, as they pick our pockets”
He argues the war on drugs was a way to allow police to harass anybody, mostly black people. African Americans are reportedly “killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans,” despite making up less than 13% of Americans, and most of these are unjustified, as a study reveals that 55% of police brutality deaths from 1980 to 2018 were “misclassified or underreported”.
The war on drugs allowed for the many disgusting interactions that have been observed between the police force and Black people. He can also be quoted saying “prison turned to profits”. He argues since the abolishment of slavery, prisons have been used as a way to force inmates to do work, and not be protected by involuntary solitude, which may constitute an act of slavery. Drug offenders are getting double digits in jail time and being put under labor for a profit.
Drastic changes in the prison system can be seen directly through President Ronald Reagan’s election. When he was elected in 1980, there were roughly 330,000 imprisoned people. After both of his terms, the number of people imprisoned jumped to 627,000. A vast majority of these people being imprisoned were minorities which caused many children to grow up without one or even both parental figures. This had the biggest impact on the African American and other minority communities which were already facing abnormally high rates of unemployment and single-parent households, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in the text called “A Case for Reparations”.
Due to the increasing cases of racialized police brutality across America, in 2013 the Black Lives Matter movement was formed. This movement’s mission is to eliminate white supremacy and build local power to arbitrate violence within Black communities. The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 originally sparked a Twitter hashtag, but the high-profile killings of Michael Brown (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), and George Floyd (2020) as well as the weeks of rioting that followed each tragic event helped expand BLM’s supporter base worldwide .
“Land of The Free," Joey Bada$$ speaks on all these issues as well. It discusses how police brutality hasn’t gotten any better, and how high the incarceration rates are due to small drug charges. The music video to this song is very powerful. It helps people understand the real meaning of this song, makes people think whether America is really the “land of the free.”
In Lil Baby's hit song, “The Bigger Picture,” he calls for justice against police brutality in
the United States. This song was released right after the death of George Floyd, relating this song to the entire Black Lives Matter movement and the effects it entails on the black communities. In the beginning of this song, he states “I find it crazy the police will shoot you and know that you are dead, but still tell you to freeze. Fucked up I seen what I seen, I guess that mean hold him down if he say he cant breathe.”. Through these words, Lil Baby talks about the death of George Floyd in 2020. During George’s death, he was consistently saying ‘I can't breathe’ as stated within the song lyrics. However the last line through these lyrics relate directly towards George Floyd, This whole quote relates to the deaths of many previous black men, and the police brutality towards African Americans.
Lil Baby and many other African-Americans call for justice during a protest in 2020 following George Floyd’s death.
Lil Baby also mentions “I see blue lights, I get scared and start runnin', that shit be crazy they are supposed to protect us. Throw us in handcuffs and arrest us. While they go home at night that shits messed up”. This quote expresses sincere emotions from Lil Baby himself. It mentions how police instilled fear in African Americans, and how they are not following their mission statement of police departments which is to ‘protect and serve’. The last part of the quote relates to show many of the white police officers responsible for the murders, are not properly prosecuted. It took two years for the four police officers responsible for the killing of George Floyd, to be charged, proving how at a glance, many of the police officers do not receive proper consequences for their actions.
Fred Hampton once said "You can jail a revolutionary, but you can't jail the revolution." This shows how the ideas of revolution and progress can never be stopped by the forces of the prison-industrial complex, despite the effects of mass incarceration being extremely detrimental to the American people as a whole. Similarly, no matter how bleak things become, true Hip-Hop artists owe it to the people to speak truth and offer hope.
Many people use Hip-Hop as their therapy. They relate to Hip-Hop as their comfort zone, and it allows listeners to understand the feeling and emotions of what Black communities are going through. Throughout Kendrick Lamar's song “Alright,” the words “we gon be alright” were
consistently mentioned throughout the song. This has a very strong meaning as Kendrick truly
believes that no matter the hardships or his troubles, he's always going to be “alright.” As this
song rose on the Hip-Hop charts, it was thought of as a “new black national anthem”. Since the release of this song in 2015, the words “we gon be alright” were chanted throughout numerous Black Lives Matter protests as a way of providing hope and mourning the countless number of Black lives lost since 2015.
Once again, I am continually impressed by my first-year writers, kudos to all the research they did for these topics, especially those who came into this course with little to no genre knowledge or Hip-Hop cultural literacy. Stay tuned as I share some of their ideas on how Hip-Hop comments on topic #3 next time. As always, thank you for taking time to read OUR work.