Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hip Hop Commentary on the Prison System: An Unrecognized Antecedent to" The New Jim Crow

 You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the block

Dead Prez  “Behind Enemy Lines”

 When Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow several years ago, many people were shocked to discover the devastating impact that the drug war and mass incarceration had on Black communities throughout the nation.  The narrative her book contained was not one which had wide dissemination in commercial media, and was certainly never presented with the power, authority and mixture of statistical evidence and storytelling that The New Jim Crow displayed

   However, there was one place where the story Michelle Alexander presented was highlighted with equal eloquence, and at times, even greater vividness and that was Hip Hop. From the late 1980’s through the beginning of the 20th Century, as the crack epidemic and the drug war it triggered led the number of incarcerated people to exceed 2 million and the number of people it indirectly affected by it to reach at least 10 times that number, a number of the most talented hip hop artists in the country, some commercially successful, some not, told heartbreaking stories in their music about what the prison system and the drug war were doing to individuals and whole communities.

   Hip Hop artists, on the ground in the most affected communities, coming from the generation of young people who gravitated to the drug business as the legal economy in their communities produced only low paying service jobs, began spinning out prison narratives in great profusion, some of them filled with political commentary, some of them offering personal stories in grim detail.

 In the first category is Brand Nubian’s “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal” which sees the police apparatus developed during the drug war as  something used to crush dissent in the Black community and  views prison as a place filled with rebels against mass impoverishment

I know the game so I just roll with the procedure
Illegal search and seizure, somethin that they're doin at their leisure
Down at the station, interrogation is takin place
Overcrowded jails but for me they're makin space
Tell the devil to his face he can suck my dick
It's the whole black race that they're fuckin with

But even amidst their rage at the incarceration of a generation of Black youth, Brand Nubian offers this heartrending portrait of what jail feels like to any inmate, activist or not- when you are alone with desperate angry men, separated from your crew, your children, your wife or girlfriend, fearful for your life, afraid you are going to losing everything you had on the outside.

I was frustrated, I can't do no more push-ups
Niggas be swole up, locked down cos of a hold-up
"The devil made me do it" is what I say
Got some bad news on my one phone call the other day
"I love the kids and I teach em to love their father
I'll get you some kicks and try to send some flicks
But it's over, baby, yes it's over"
Ain't much you can do when you're holdin a phone
A million inmates but ya still alone
You're not cryin but inside ya dyin
You might cry in the night when ya safe and outta sight
Damn I miss my peeps and the rides in the jeeps
And my, casual freedom, where's my crew when I need em?

  An even more detailed look at prison life, without the explicit political commentary , is presented what most think is the greatest hip hop prison narrative ever written, Nas’s “One Love.’ which appeared on his landmark album “Illmatic”  which appeared when he was only 19 years old. Nas ( Nasir Jones) who grew up in the Queensbridge Houses in New York creates a narrative in which prison, along with early death, has become the fate of an entire generation of Black youth living in the inner city in the late 1980’s to mid 90’s. The conversational intimacy of Nas account, which juxtaposes portraits of prison life to those of street life, is the stuff of great literature, presenting an alternate reality which middle class Americans, Black as well as white, had little direct exposure to:

What's up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid
When the cops came you should've slid to my crib
Fuck it black, no time for looking back it's done
Plus congratulations you know you got a son
I heard he looks like you, why don't your lady write you?
Told her she should visit, that's when she got hyper
Flippin, talk about he acts too rough
He didn't listen he be riffin' while I'm telling him stuff
I was like yeah, shorty don't care, she a snake too
Fucking with the niggas from that fake crew that hate you
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?
Jerome's niece, on her way home from Jones Beach - it's bugged
Plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hangin out with young thugs that all carry 9's

 Nas’s intimacy with the dangers on the inside, of rapes and beatings and deadly beefs, whether on Rikers Island or in upstate prisons ( Elmira) gives the song a chilling quality. Here is a 19 year old artist who lives in a world where death and humiliation lurk around every corner:
But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece
Whylin on the Island, but now with Elmira
Better chill cause them niggas will put that ass on fire
Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers
But maintain when you come home the corner's ours

In the final verse, Nas acknowledges that nothing he has ever learned in school, or read, prepared him for the realities he and his friends face, and  proclaims writing them down in verse as his personal mission

Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er
So I be ghost from my projects
I take my pen and pad for the weekend

   Nas was Michelle Alexander before  The New Jim Crow warning anyone who would listen of the tragedy befalling his generation. But it was 1994, and no one much outside of the a hip hop audience,  listened.

   The combination of intimate details of prison life and acute consciousness of tragedy, which Nas song highlights, appears in a great many Hip Hop prison narratives which followed “One Love” including those which were circulated only locally in various cities.  A Dominican Hip Hop group from Washington Heights, displays these features in  song widely circulated in NY called “Going All Out”  First the duo describes the virtual inevitability of incarceration among young men in their neighborhood:

Whats all my nigga's is getting rich by breaking the law
Going through banded walls
Soothing the pain up with alcohol
Living the criminal tradition of organized crime and cooking mines
Playing with nickles and dimes
And then millions civilians is still snitching
Dangerous for legal living that is caused by the amunition
Uncle sam is mad win again
Everytime we get locked up we feel somebody's throwing the coffins

That done, they move on to a fear filled narrative of what awaits them in prison

Ayo my drug infectected sections got me infected what a selection direction
Department of corrections Check though I left my castle unprotected
On a bus with these addicts stressing my necklace bullpens full of hooligans bull
Many vipers and mad syphers for the phone you get blown to the bone
. . . .
Me that body be in the infirmary emergancy look at the shit that I got
Into for the American Curency Guliani got new laws got me looking at
Great walls bangs are being made in the mess hall

There is no pretense that this is anything but normal reality for young men in Washington Heights, as it was for those in the Queensbridge Houses. Did anyone outside this world notice, or care. Not much- at least in the 1990’s.

   At the end of the decade, some politically conscious hip hop artists began to directly address the indifference towards the mass incarceration of young men in inner city communities on the part of the vast majority of the American population. Some artists came together on an album called “ No More Prisons”  and one of the most powerful contributions was a song by Chubb Rock and Lil Dap, “The Rich Got Richer” with  a chorus that presents a chilling view of life in the “hood:”

Because life ain't shit, you got to work for yours
Got to hustle from the bottom just to feed the poor
Niggas think shit is funny, got to work for yours
See the rich get, rich, the poor get poor

But the most powerful song is Chubb Rock’s enumeration of major New York  and New Jersey prisons along with matter of fact references to the things that happen to people in them, along with a cry of rage at the rich who profit from crime and somehow never end up behind bars

The JFK niggas died in cellblock 9
From the crack lackeys, hold your asshole in Coxsackie
Green Haven nigs in pens sweatin like pigs
Niggas get clockwork for five to ten blockwork
Then cry for balance, then toss the salads
Of the long wrong life, beaten knife, wound cabbage
Greenvale niggas at night, for bail adage
. …..
The Guiliani's, Armani's, who launder
The ducats from the Mexicans sweatin niggz from Rahway
How the fuck can street crack rule the NASDAQ?
That's like a rap nigga getting a check from ASCAP --
-- can't happen, after Attica rule the Rectu
The poor went raw and the rich got richer
       The song, which in some way prefigures Michelle Alexander’s entire argument, ends with a passionate shout out by Chubb Rock to people he knows behind bars:

D-Rock, peace peace and one time peace
Freeze Love, peace peace and peace peace
Cocksachie, Greenvale, Greenwald
Attica, one more time, hold on
Rahway, come back cell block H
And everybody in Riker's, one love
One love..

At around the same time, Dead Prez came out with a song called “Behind Enemy Lines” that may be the most powerful  direct indictment of mass incarceration and its impact on the Black community ,ever recorded  As you review the lyrics I quote  from, please remember that this song appeared at least ten years before the appearance of   The New Jim Crow:

   The song begins with an invented dialogue between  a guard and prisoners that goes as follows:

Let's go fellas, shower time's in five minutes
* sounds of prison bars slamming shut *
Get those feet off the table, whaddyou think this is, home?
(This is bullshit - yo son let me get a ciggarette)
(I'ma go.. back to my cell and read)

That's it - five more minutes and that's it
Back to work fellas, back to work!

  The song then moves on to a narrative of someone who Dead Prez describes as a political prisoner, Fred Hampton Jr, setting the stage for their analysis of mass incarceration as a form of political repression:

Yo, lil' Kadeija pops his locks, he wanna pop the lock
But prison ain't nuttin but a private stock
And she be dreamin bout his date of release, she hate the police
But loved by her grandma who hugs and kisses her
Her father's a political prisoner, Free FredSon of a Panther that the government shot dead
Back in 12/4, 1969
Four o'clock in the mornin, it's terrible but it's fine, cause
Fred Hampton Jr. looks just like him
Walks just like him, talks just like him
And it might be frightenin the Feds and the snitches
To see him organize the gang brothers and sisters
So he had to be framed yo, you know how the game go
Eighteen years, because the five-oh said so
They said he set a fire to a a-rab store
But he ignited the minds of the young black and poor

Dead Prez then produces the first of two incredible choruses where they present their political analysis:

Their next verse presents a devastating portrait of a Black youth abandoned, growing up in a devastated neighborhood, who ends up with a gun in his hand and a life behind bars, viewing his story as a metaphor for several generations  of Black youth discarded, their potential squandered, their passion directed into a struggle for survival that leaves many casualties. Or as Dead Prez puts it “Another ghetto child turned into a killer.”

Lord can't even smoke a loosey since he was twelve
Now he's 25 locked up with a L
hey call him triple K, cause he killed three niggas
Another ghetto child got turned into a killer
His pops was a Vietnam veteran on heroin
Used like a pawn by these white North Americans
Momma couldn't handle the stress and went crazy
Grandmomma had to raise the baby
Just a young boy, born to a life of poverty
Hustlin, robbery, whatever brung
The paper home
Carried the chrome like a blind man holdin cane
Tattoes all over his chest, so you can know his name
But y'all know how the game go
D's kicked in the front door, and guess who
They came fo'?
A young nigga headed for the pen, coulda been
Shoulda been
Never see the hood again
Their final chorus presents a simple concept: Prison has become a metaphor for Black life in inner city neighborhoods throughout the nation. Never has their been a more elegant description of what sociologist  Loiq Waquant has called “ The Prison Hood  Symbiosis,” than this chorus from Dead Prez:

You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)

        What I hope to have shown here is that almost every important component of Michelle Alexander’s argument was presented by hip hop artists from 10 to 20 years before her book appeared. And in forms that were deeply familiar to the hip hop audience, and touched powerful emotions. That this discourse was neglected, and at times mocked, in virtually every mainstream venue of mass communication does not negate its power and importance.  It only shows how easily our society renders whole sections of the population invisible.