Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Should Rappers Wage War on Mass Incarceration?

Yesterday, Dr. Boyce from Syracuse University published an article entitled "Rappers Should Be Repping The Georgia Prison Strike." It's a well-informed article on the issue of mass incarceration, and in it, Dr. Boyce appeals to rappers to take up the issues of mass incarceration. "Rather than writing lyrics to glorify incarceration and excessive materialism, [the hip hop community] may want to consider doing things that challenge the systems that enslave hundreds of thousands of black people."

Well said, Dr. Boyce.

But we'd like to take his message a step further. Who has a responsibility for spreading this message?

Certainly, rappers need to examine their messages and ask themselves how their lyrics are serving their community. The 13th Amendment of the Constitution allows for slavery if one is incarcerated, and the media reinforces the African American male stereotype of the "criminal clown" through imagery, movies, music, and the like.  These images find a home in the minds of law enforcement officers, jurors, judges, and politicians.  If the only way to sell music downloads is to play into this media model, isn't that the ultimate form of selling out? You're just reinforcing the stereotype. You're playing right into the slaveholder's hands! How about some positive black images for once.

But it's not just rappers who have a responsibility. EVERYONE who becomes aware of this injustice needs to get involved and make their voice heard. African Americans only make up approximately 12% of the United States population. There is no such thing as a 12% majority vote, and the Civil Rights Act would have never been enacted if it depended solely on the African American community.  Rappers, television and film personalities, academics, lawyers, judges, upper and middle class businessmen and women, young and old, white, black, Asian, Latino, all need to speak out when they see an injustice of this magnitude.

As Dr. Boyce stated in his article, "While it's easy to say that every man and woman in prison is there because they deserve it, we must remember that the power of the state to define someone as a criminal is arbitrary (even Jesus and Martin Luther King were "criminals" according to the state.)  The erosion of civil liberties related to rights such as those regarding illegal search and seizure, forteiture of property, access to counsel, and voting rights as they have been applied to African Americans should be a concern to us all.

Over the past two decades, with the War on Drugs, we have managed to lock away a significant portion of our population, and African Americans have been disproportionately targeted even though research shows that whites use drugs at a higher rate.  The result is that the United States now incarcerates a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the height of apartheid.  In the past, Germans locked up and put to death a large portion of their population too.  Does anyone remember that?  And yet we have the audacity to wag our finger at other countries for their human rights abuses???

So, in conclusion, it's not just rappers who have a responsibility to their community, it's all of us.

Action Step: Read "Until They Come For You" and post comments on how you are trying to make a difference.

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