When the words “law” and “hip-hop” appear together, it usually refers to the arrest of another wayward rapper. But there’s another, more positive correlation between the seemingly disparate entities, one in which Donald Tibbs is pushing through his innovative, “Hip-Hop and the Constitution” course at Drexel University.
Tibbs, an associate professor of law at the university, is considered an expert on issues related to race, civil rights and criminal procedure. He was looking for a way to combine his love of hip-hop music and the messages included therein with his legal background to produce a viable course that would be acceptable to the university, law students, and to the greater law community.
“I have been teaching law for about seven years, and one of the courses I taught was ‘Constitutional Criminal Procedure.’ I discovered that I could use some of the lyrics from Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems’ and center that as everything you need to know about the Fourth Amendment,” Tibbs said in explaining the origins of the class, which the university offered last spring. “So I looked at the lyrics, and they all contained elements that I wound up teaching students throughout the semester. I would post the lyrics on the board, and we started having a discussion which morphed into what more we could learn about law and constitutional rights through hip-hop artists.
“I then started doing lectures on lyrics at different conferences,” Tibbs continued. “And they were met with high esteem from colleagues.”
In order for his vision of a semester-long course to become a reality, Tibbs had to first procure a grant from Drexel’s Office of Equity and Diversity. After that, he began to invite students to enroll and invite scholars in the field of law and hip-hop to lecture throughout the semester. He hopes to offer the class again next September, and in the meantime, he and his team will release an anthological study to be used in other courses and by other institutions.
“So every week for the entire semester, we would have a different law professor come in and explain how hip-hop could be a part of this. They would talk about contracts, intellectual property, prisons, corporations and the criminal justice system,” Tibbs said. “For 15 weeks – the entire semester – we’ve had 13 different lecturers, and [hip-hop group Public Enemy founder] Chuck D was the keynote speaker, and was very happy to stop by and talk to the students.”
Tibbs would seem the ideal individual to bring together two incongruent elements such as rap music and jurisprudence. In previous stops, he served as assistant professor of law at Southern University Law Center, and prior to that he was a lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He also worked out of the School of Justice Studies and the Department of African-American studies at Arizona State University.
Tibbs has written several books associated with the topic, including “From Black Power to Prison Power: The making of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union,” and has penned numerous papers and dissertations on the many frameworks of law.
Still, as well-versed as Tibbs is in the subject matter, there existed a certain level of apprehension he had to overcome. After all, the legal field is not one prone to social movements such as these. Tibbs also had to convince people to embrace the overall, underlying messages in hip-hop while looking past some of the more negative verses.
“There’s some trepidation in getting people who aren’t familiar with hip-hop and hip-hop culture to move beyond certain lyrics, the misogyny, the language, and some of the other negative associations with the culture and specifically, with rap music. These are critiques of life and law from the bottom up,” Tibbs said. “The way we evaluate things, from the top down, we don’t allow for the voices of the people living it on the ground every day.
“We need to listen to these voices and say they are valuable, and not overly concern ourselves with how they are critiquing, but that they are critiquing.”