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Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice

andré douglas pond cummings

Indiana Tech - Law School

July 16, 2009

Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 50, 2009

I argue that hip hop music and culture profoundly influences attitudes toward and perceptions about criminal justice in the United States. At base, hip hop lyrics and their cultural accoutrements turns U.S. punishment philosophy upon its head, effectively defeating the foundational purposes of American crime and punishment. Prison and punishment philosophy in the U.S. is based on clear principles of retribution and incapacitation, where prison time for crime should serve to deter individuals from engaging in criminal behavior. In addition, the stigma that attaches to imprisonment should dissuade criminals from recidivism. Hip hop culture denounces crime and punishment in the United States in a way that essentially defies the underlying crime and punishment philosophy adopted and championed by U.S. legislators for decades. Hip hop artists, since the inception of hip hop as a musical genre, have rhymed in a narrative format that starkly informs all listeners and fans that the entire foundational regime of prison for crime in the United States is suspect, illegitimate and profane. As U.S. criminal law and punishment is profane and illegitimate to many, as hip hop artists fiercely argue, then the primary foundational underpinnings of U.S. criminal justice is lost on the hip hop generation, that of deterrence and stigma. Because, as hip hop aggressively describes, crime and punishment in the U.S. is fundamentally unfair, inequitable and biased against people of color and the poor, then punishment for committing certain crimes in America is viewed by the hip hop nation as illegitimate and imprisonment for committing suspect crimes is unaffecting. Hip hop culture has engendered in the global hip hop generation a tradition of exposing racial inequality and social injustice throughout the world, but particularly within the United States. To that end, this Essay argues that much like Critical Race Theory espouses a tradition of 'looking to the bottom,' that American purveyors of crime and punishment law consider the viewpoint of the hip hop nation, which espouses a better, more equitable theory of punishment and justice in the United States.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 32

Keywords: hip hop, crime, punishment, imprisonment, culture, recidivism, stigma

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Date posted: July 18, 2009  

Suggested Citation

cummings, andré douglas pond, Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice (July 16, 2009). Santa Clara Law Review, Vol. 50, 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1434838 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1434838

Contact Information

André Douglas pond Cummings (Contact Author)
Indiana Tech - Law School ( email )
1600 E. Washington Blvd.
Ft. Wayne, IN 46803
United States
260.399.2836 (Phone)
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