October 22, 2019

On the Criminalization of Black Male Folklife

By In Features

Hip hop music has played an incredibly important role in my social life for the majority of my life. As a young kid, much of my friend group’s recreational chatter surrounded the new rap CDs that dropped on a given Tuesday. We fiercely debated the relative skills of different MCs with a ferocity that would make you think we were somehow related to them. We would work to memorize lyrics. Reciting verses from rapid fire rhymers like Bone Thugs n Harmony or Twista was a source of pride.  My high school cafeteria was the site of serious musical production. I remember sitting at the lunch table with my dorky friends watching our resident school MCs taking turns spitting freestyles while another male student used his fists to pound out a beat on the white walls of the school cafeteria.

As an adult, hip hop has moved from being strictly a recreational engagement to becoming central to my professional interests. I went to graduate school at Indiana University just so I could study the culture on a critical level. I was also able to teach it while there. My doctoral dissertation was about hip hop’s role in senses of place and identity formation in the Black Houston, Texas’ neighborhoods that raised me. In short, hip hop has played a key role in my life as well as the lives of other black men and women. It’s part of a cultural space that includes language, fashion, body art, street art and more that shapes our identity and affirms our existence. 

For Black Americans, culture has always been both an empowering space but also one where violent racial politics play out. Culture has been used to metaphorically and literally kill us for centuries. Naturally, hip hop has not escaped that utility. Despite being one of the most important sources of American and global pop culture today, hip hop songs are being used as a reason to suspend, incarcerate and kill Black boys and men. I want to take a moment to address this situation. 

Let’s take a look at what’s happening in our American schools. Hip hop music is being used to further the success of the school-to-prison pipeline, the national trend of filtering black and brown kids out of the school systems and into penal system. More explicitly, hip hop music is being used to justify disrupting Black male education though suspension and expulsion. Take the case of Taylor Bell. In 2011, the then Mississippi teen was expelled from school for making a rap song that was suspended for school for recording and released a rap song that addressed allegations of sexual harassment toward his female classmates. In Ohio, four Black male teenagers were expelled from school for posting rap videos that allegedly included references to gang affiliation. In Illinois, a teenager was suspended after a classmate heard him rapping the lyrics of a Future song to himself. With these cases, hip hop now joins wearing dreadlocks and wearing doo-rags as reasons Black boys get suspend from school at a rate higher than any other group.

Taylor Bell

At the other end of the pipeline is the practice of mass-incarceration that has disproportionally plagued African American men across decades. Nationally there are over half a million African American men locked in American prisons. A Black boy stands a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives. Black men are locked up at a rate that is seven times that of their white male counterparts. 

The mass incarceration of Black men is a systemic issue born of several other interconnected systemic issues with racist foundations. The suspension problems that I mentioned earlier lead to high dropout rates. The national graduation rate for Black boys is about 59%.  Nationally, about 7% of black men are out of school and unemployed. That’s nearly double the average for other groups. And, without educational and economic prospects, some young Black men turn to illegal drug distribution to afford very meager lifestyles. 

Hip hop has long been a space for the disenfranchised Black men to address the practice of criminalization. In every city in our country, young Black guys are writing and rapping lyrics that reflect the precariousness of street life including episodes that they’ve either experienced or witnessed. Given this, its epically unfortunate that hip hop lyrics are increasingly being used as evidence in criminal proceedings. English Professor Eric Nielson, who studies this phenomenon, notes that hip hop lyrics have been used in “hundreds if not a thousand cases.” And that they are used in three ways: “1) They’re treated as confessions if they’re written after the crime. 2) They’re treated as proof of intent if they’re written before the crime. 3) They’re classified as “threats”—the lyrics are the crime themselves.” 

Take the case of San Diego rapper Tiny Do for example. In 2014, Tiny Doo was arrested and charged with 9 counts of criminal street gang conspiracy, including benefitting from a crime committed by a street gang. Prosecutors suggest that tiny Doo was a member of a Gang who increased their street popularity after a wave of gang-related shootings in the area. Neither the cops nor prosecution are arguing that Tiny Doo participating in the shootings. Rather, they argue that Tiny Doo’s rap lyrics is evidence of both his membership in the gang and the gang’s violent criminal activity. And, as such, his selling of his music constitutes profiting from gang activity. Tiny Doo was incarcerated for seven months before a judge dismissed the charges. The same happened to a rapper in Virginia and in New York, NYPD reports that they are monitoring aspiring rappers’ music videos for evidence of illegal gang activity.  In October 2019, NYPD pressured organizers of the Rollin’ Loud Festival to pull several acts from the concert lineup over alleged gang ties.

The final thread here hits very close to home. Since I’ve been able to drive, sitting my car listening to hip hop is one of my favorite pastimes. MY car is a very closed and private feeling space. I can be alone with the music. The MCs lyrics feel isolated and more impactful while the car stereo speakers accentuate the bass, turning the music experience from audible to physical. It’s one of the most comforting, stress relieving practices for myself and other black men. Certainly a form of self-care. That’s why it’s been unnerving to hear about cases like the murder Jordan Davis, the 17-year old Black kid whose killer Michael Dunn claims to have been annoyed by the bass from the rap music playing in the teen’s car. Or, earlier this year, 27year old Michael Paul Adams stabbed 17-year old Elijah Al-Amin, allegedly because the loud rap music coming from the teen’s car scared him. In these cases, hip hop sounds in association with a live black male body elicits deep seeded racial prejudice and bias. The complex of sound and site create a supposed threat that is worthy of preemptive strike. As such, a seeming innocuous practice of Black male self-care joins asking for help when your car breaks down and eating ice cream on your couch at home as reasons Black men deserve to die in our society.   

Elijah Al-Amin

I’m not totally sure what we as folklorists can do to stop this practice. These problems are the result of fundamental cracks in our society that manifest themselves in at the very least implicit bias and at the most out right racism. We live in a society where Black boys and men are seen as a problem that needs to be solved rather than human beings that deserve to be loved. 

This leads me to a larger and maybe more important closing point. What I can really ask you to do as folklorists at universities and in the public sector is to be aware that Black men are very award of their position in this society and act accordingly. Recognize that the Black male artist who won’t give you his government name and is hard to reach may not be disrespecting you. He may not trust you nor the institution you’re representing for very legitimate reasons. Understand that the quiet Black student in your classes may be deeply insecure about his language and preparation and is fighting an internal battle against perceptions. Know that Black male folklorists and culture workers are not disconnected from the Black male students nor the Black male street artists. Know that we are caught up in complex webs of racial politics in our offices and that fieldwork is a precarious practice, but we do it anyway because we love it. Black people’s traditions and experiences are defined by several intersecting oppressions and we must employ much patience, deep care and critical concern as we engage with them.  

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