Judging The Soul: Gangsta Rap Lyrics On Trial

“Fuck the police!” said a crazy-motherfucker named Ice Cube, and almost every rapper since. The prophetic song by N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude) was released in 1988, 4 years before Rodney King made headlines, which then ignited the L.A. Riots. Maybe Ice Cube and N.W.A. was, is, crazy-mother fuckin’ right.

Fast-forward to present. Across the country rap lyrics are being admitted as evidence into criminal court cases. A New Jersey man, Vonte Skinner, an aspiring rapper, was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years in jail. At his trial the prosecution read 13 pages of his rap lyrics (i.e. “I’ll watch you pricks die slowly / lay you stiff like a trophy). Another case was reopened after rapper Antwain Steward posted a music video on Youtube where a detective stumbled upon it and entered the video as evidence. There was no murder weapon or witnesses, only this lone-youtube video. The rapper was later charged with murder and is in jail.

Cases like these force upon us some important questions: Should their artistic-work be used against them? What does reading these lyrics in criminal court really mean or do? What are jurors and judges actually judging?

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via Flickr Commons

Before getting into the particulars and answering each of those questions there is a more fundamental question at hand: what is Gangsta Rap besides inflammatory misogynies, wielding guns and dealing drugs? Michelle Alexander, who authoredThe New Jim Crow, can help us out here. Her thesis is that such contemporary laws and structures function–in clandestine ways–as to target minorities, much like the post-Civil WarJim Crow Laws; hence, The New Jim Crow.

Under the subheading, ‘Gangsta Love,’ the black-activist and lawyer says that we should be concerned about criminal behavior being embraced in Latino and black-communities, but also that

“There is nothing abnormal or surprising about a severely stigmatized group embracing their stigma. Psychologists have long observed that when people feel hopelessly stigmatized, a powerful coping strategy—often the only apparent route to self-esteem—is embracing one’s stigmatized identity” (171).

Alexander does not mention this, but long before psychology existed, as we know it today, the same phenomenon was happening around the world. Nietzsche first called this ‘embracing of stigma’ the result of ressentiment. A quick etymology of ressentiment: sentiment = feeling; re = again, hence, we have ressentiment literally meaning feeling again and again, usually something negative. But Nietzsche says that ressentiment is also a creative act that gives birth to values.

The concept of ressentiment can also be defined as a reassigning and revaluing of pain done by those who are objects of ridicule by the masses, who remain outside of social-norms. This supports Alexander’s thesis that the men and women who identify with gangsta culture are doing so as the result of being targeted by those in power. Gangsta culture was born out of ressentiment and began as a political resistance against that very power which created the stigma. Without the malaise brought on by white supremacy and police brutality we may have never been graced with “Fuck The Police.”

Alexander also uses movements like ‘gay pride’ and ‘black is beautiful’ as parallels to the type of ressentiment present in the embrace of gangsta culture. When gay people flip the stigma of being gay on its own head by taking pride in their gayness, the stigma itself is then neutralized, no longer hurtful. Same goes for ‘black is beautiful,’ the color of one’s skin—dark, black, brown—as undesirable is stigmatized by a majority and then embraced by those who are scapegoated.

Enter a paradox. Gangsta culture has done and is doing exactly what every other stigmatized group has done. But by embracing this specific stigma—one marked by criminality—often found reprehensible by the majority, the stigma being embraced puts them in jail and thrown into a vacuous system. Nobody can go to jail for being black or gay (that is debatable) but being gangsta is a whole other story. It is a crime.

The question then becomes, why is it being embraced? Alexander proposes that this happens because it is an identity that young people in ghetto communities feel is unavoidable, or it is the only way they can band together, to unify and cope. And it just so happens that this identity is now being used against them in courts. Fuck the police and they fuck back.

When prosecutors read 13 pages of Skinner’s rap lyrics, which were written years before the murder at hand was attempted, it flat-out massaged the perception of jurors by showing what “kind” of criminal they were dealing with.

Juridical systems were not always concerned with what “kind” of criminal was on trial. Foucault gives us a history of crime and punishment in Discipline & Punish. He says that before the 1800’s, trials focused simply on: what is the crime and is it punishable? The punishment was then carried out on the body of the wrongdoer, usually in the form of public torture. This let people know, explicitly, who was in power. Power is far more sophisticated today, more ghostly.

With the advancement of the “human sciences” (criminology, criminal anthropology, psychiatry, etc.) courts were then able to call upon a new knowledge to get at “who” the criminal was, in order to catalog what their souls were like. Foucault’s work highlights this move from punishing the body to judging, and then later disciplining, “the modern soul.” Foucault says,

“It is these shadows lurking behind the case itself that are judged and punished…the knowledge of the criminal, one’s estimation of him, what is known about the relations between him, his past and his crime, what might be expected of him in the future…” We then move to, “judging something other than crimes, namely, the ‘soul’ of the criminal” (pp.17-19).

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via Flickr Commons

Note that we are not discussing the theological Christian soul. This soul, the “modern soul,” is not born out of sin. It is rather a production of power that gave rise to knowledge (again: psychiatry, anthropology, criminology etc.) to then typify and pathologize both lay-people and criminals alike. Anyone who deviates from constructed norms become subjects to this power-knowledge network. Subjects are then born out of subjugation.

Rap lyrics have become another example of courts relying on anything and everything but itself (laws and codes) to punish people. After jurors are forced to listen to page after page of rap lyrics, they are no longer judging any crime or even an alleged criminal, what they are judging is a fictional linchpin, a soul, an identity that has been commodified and consumed, stigmatized and, after nowhere else to turn, embraced. TC mark

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