_Inside the Lyrics

If you listen to hip-hop music only to enjoy the beat, you’re missing out. But it’s not your fault, says Donald Tibbs, a law professor who specializes in race, crime and punishment.

_Donald Tibbs

Tibbs is an associate professor of law in the Earle Mack School of Law.

Most people don’t know how to take the lyrics from a hip-hop song and think about them in a deeply critical way. Through his research and teaching, Tibbs is trying to change that.

Tibbs first introduced hip-hop lyrics into his coursework back in 2009 with one particular goal in mind—“to change minds,” he says. On the first day of class, he posted the lyrics to 99 Problems by rap artist Jay-Z.

“I wanted to show my students that I can teach them everything about constitutional criminal procedures and police investigations from this one verse of this one song—every single line connects to a different case that we were going to talk about that term. Every line connects to about three or four different legal cases, and my goal is to show you where those connections come from,” says Tibbs.

Hip-hop music, Tibbs says, is a way to tell the story of the war on young black men in America.

Tibbs explored this topic in detail in a paper published in 2012 in the University of Iowa’s Journal of Race, Gender and Justice. In “From Black Power to Hip Hop: Discussing Race, Policing and the Fourth Amendment Through the ‘War on’ Paradigm,” Tibbs examines this war on young black men through hyper policing in America, and the way that constitutional rights for young black men are violated every single day. He wanted to show how these violations changed—and stayed the same—from the post-Civil War era to the post-Black Power era.

Last spring, Tibbs taught a new kind of law course: Hip-Hop and the American Constitution, the first course at an American law school to focus solely on hip-hop, he says. After receiving a grant from the Office of the Provost and matching funds from the law school, Tibbs was determined to show students that hip-hop has a story to tell. The course brought together scholars from across the country who were separately researching the connections between hip-hop and the law.

“There is a multitude of legal scholars who are out there writing about hip-hop in bits and pieces and we are all sort of scattered,” Tibbs says. “I wanted to bring everybody together through a lecture series and have my students see that hip-hop is not only valuable in the post-modern world and in popular culture, but it also has significance to legal education and, more importantly, legal practice.”

Tibbs says he wants law students to see that pop culture, in particular hip-hop, and the law fit together quite neatly.

“As we become a more pop culture-driven society, it’s important to think about the ways the practice of law is affected by popular culture,” Tibbs says. “Hip-hop brings up every single thing that might be related to some aspect of the practice of law—whether it be criminal law, criminal procedure, contract law, intellectual property, evidence, property rights, business corporations—everything that students might go out and experience as practicing lawyers.”

Tibbs is also sharing his experience with hip hop’s story in a new book, Reading Hip Hop, Teaching Law, due for publication in late 2014. In it, Tibbs explains why he enjoys having a critical ear when listening to hip hop music.

“I like words; I appreciate how these artists, many of whom do not have any sophisticated legal training, are able to pull themes from all over the world and connect them together in a way that rhymes, makes sense, tells a story, teaches law and keeps up with a beat, Tibbs says.

Tibbs believes more courses on hip hop’s connection to modern society should be developed. In fact, he says he hopes funds become available in the near future so he can teach a course similar to Hip Hop and the American Constitution. Only this time, he says, he plans to focus on a particular artist’s life and lyrics, such as Jay Z or Ice Cube.

For now, Tibbs is working with fellow scholars Pamela Bridgewater from American University’s Washington College of Law, and Andre Douglas Pond Cummings from Indiana Tech Law School on an anthology based on the Hip Hop and the American Constitution course. Hip Hop and the Law: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement is a collection of writing by the lecturers from the course and other hip-hop scholars from across the country.

“It’s designed to be a reader that can be used by anyone who is teaching a course in hip hop or popular culture who wants to know ‘Where does the law fit it in?’“ Tibbs says. “It has close to 56 pieces in it, which is a way of saying there are at least 56 law professors out there who are writing about this in some way. And I think we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Tibbs says the anthology is slated for publication later this year.