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In Your Ear: Hip-Hop Justice
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In Your Ear: Hip-Hop Justice

In Your Ear: Hip-Hop Justice

In Your Ear: Hip-Hop Justice
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George Washington University law professor Paul Butler argues that hip hop provides the best ground-level soundtrack of the criminal justice system and its failures. Butler shares what he's listening to his play list for Tell Me More In Your Ear" feature.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to a very different look at the justice system. Law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler has written a new book, "Let's Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice." He says hip-hop reveals difficult truths about American crime and punishment, and Paul Butler shared some of his favorite songs for our occasional feature we call In Your Ear.

Mr. PAUL BUTLER (Author, "Let's Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice"): So one song I'm listening to now is called "Misunderstood," and it's by Lil Wayne. It's on his most recent album, "The Carter III." I love "Misunderstood" because in it, he's got this dry lecture about the criminal justice system. It's about a minute and a half. It's where he talks about how many people in the U.S. are locked up and specifically how many African-American men are locked up.

(Soundbite of song, "Misunderstood")

Mr. LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) You see, one in every 100 Americans are locked up. One in every nine black Americans are locked up�

Mr. BUTLER: And he talks about the reasons why, including for using and selling drugs, a crime that blacks are disproportionately locked up for. And he kind of breaks it down. One of the amazing things about this track is he's actually smoking a marijuana cigarette while he raps about criminal justice. So he's keeping it real. It's a great beat and a great song. That's why the album got nominated for a Grammy Award.

(Soundbite of song, "Misunderstood")

Mr. LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) I love being misunderstood. Why? Because I live in the suburbs, but I come from the hood. Bring the hook in.

Mr. BUTLER: Another song I'm listening to, it's the "Sound of Da Police" by KRS-One, and it's their critique of the police for racial profiling, but it's actually a broader, theoretical critique of the way that we construct crime in the United States.

(Soundbite of song, "Sound of Da Police")

KRS-ONE (Musical Group): (Singing) That's the sound of da beast. That's the sound of da police.

Mr. BUTLER: KRS makes a point that we, United States citizens, we got our land from Indians. It was stolen land.

(Soundbite of song, "Sound of Da Police")

KRS-ONE: (Singing) Change your attitude; change your plan. There can never really be justice on stolen land.

Mr. BUTLER: They've got this great line: There can never be real justice on stolen land. But then he talks about how the police harass minorities, especially young, black men; and he goes from this kind of alliteration thing, sound of da police, sound of da police, he blends that to the sound of the da beast, and he makes this analogy between prison and slavery, an analogy that comes up all the time in hip-hop music.

(Soundbite of song, "Sound of Da Police")

KRS-ONE: (Singing) Yeah, officer from overseer. You need a little clarity? Check the similarity. The overseer could stop you what you're doing. The officer will pull you over just when he's pursuing.

Mr. BUTLER: So it's an old school again, this is all pop music that people dance to. And the third song that I just love is called "Danger" by Erykah Badu. The first time I heard this song was on a dance floor in a club in Atlanta, and it starts out with this sample of a collect call from prison.

(Soundbite of song, "Danger")

Ms. ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) I just got this call�

Unidentified Woman: This is a collect call from the correctional facility from�

Unidentified Man: It's me, baby.

Mr. BUTLER: And it's her boyfriend. He's about to get out of prison. She accepts the call. She can't wait to see him. At the same time, she's scared because he might start dealing drugs again, and that makes her unsafe. So this song is about the collateral consequences of prison, about how people do time on the outside. It's not just the person who's being locked up, who's being punished and how the criminal justice system ought to take that into account.

Erykah Badu is the goddess. She's just awesome, and this is one of her most brilliant songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Danger")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Yeah, I got some money.

MARTIN: Paul Butler teaches law at George Washington University. He's the author of the new book, "Let's Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice." He tells us more about how hip-hop can show us what's wrong with the criminal justice system and how to fix it. That conversation is just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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