Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A look back at one of Wyclef Jean's performed legal dramas

One of the most interesting and critically acclaimed albums in recent years was Wyclef Jean's The Carnival, which was released an incredible 12 years ago. This album combined traditional hip-hop with French and Haitian Creole influences and featured a host of characters from the Neville Brothers to Lauryn Hill, Celia Cruz to Barry Gibb. Wyclef brought about a change in the way hip-hop was done, paving the way for experimental hip-hop like Common's Electric Circus and Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor. Wyclef helped (He was surely not the only force at play.) hip-hop to transition out of the gansta rap style that domianted much of the late 80's and early 90's. With that transition, hip-hop began to influence a steadily larger segment of the population.

Several of the interludes depict courtroom dramas and many of the songs address important urban problems with policing, drug crimes, gun violence and love. It's always interesting to consider the ways in which hip-hop artists depict the legal system. For better or worse, these messages are being consumed by young and old alike. It's often much easier to throw in the latest CD or download the iTunes single of the week than it is to turn on CNN or CourtTV. What impact does this different sort of legal knowledge have on clients that pass through our doors as lawyers, scholars, activists, and teachers? One such interlude, Words of Wisdom, unfolds...

Hello, boys and girls.Welcome, to Wyclef Words of Wisdom
Have you ever been sitting in your
house at two o'clock in the morning
and you get a mysterious phone
call from a girl that you don't know?
(A female begins talking seductively)
Now, hold on, think with your mind
and not with your pistol
'Cause if you invite her over
this is what might happen:

Rape! Rape!
Rape! Rape!
Rape! Rape! (What the... Yo, yo, yo...shit!)
Rape! Rape!
Rape! Rape!
Rape! Rape!

Cop: Freeze! Put your hands in the air!
Wyclef: Officer, you don't understand.
She called me. I was sleeping.
I was minding my business.
Cop: I don't give a flying fuck
about two bits about a piss.
You're fuckin' guilty. (Yes, yes)
Wyclef: Nobody's protected.

Wyclef's message here is important. What rights are being protected? Who possesses those rights? And who enforces them? These questions are not solely the questions of urban youth, but also of our constitutional and criminal law scholars. The impact that hip-hop's recorded legal dramas have on us must be important.

Also, authenticity is an important avenue of investigation. What is it that allows hip-hop artists to proclaim X, Y, or X about the criminal justice system? Must you have been to jail to comment on jail? The predominate reason I went to law school was to better understand the system with which I supposedly disagreed. Now that I have a better understanding of this country's system of law and order, I feel that my "street cred" as a critic of that system is enhanced, but I will never have the experiences with the system that many have.

So where is the locus of knowledge? I can find knowledge in government reports, court cases, and law review articles, but I can also find knowledge in my own experiences and the experiences others convey to me. The street corner preachers that reside on U Street in DC, Queens Bridge in NYC, and Market Square in Pittsburgh also represent loci of knowledge. Unfortunately, these sources often go untapped in legal scholarship.

The questions I leave to this blog's contributors and readers are: Where do we get legal knowledge? Who controls what knowledge may be considered legal in nature? And, how do recorded legal drams affect the way we (society) perceive legal institutions?

-Nick J. Sciullo

(Photo of Wyclef's The Carnival by Sony Music. Photo of Ben's Chili Bowl by http://www.sogoodblog.com/)


  1. This is a great blog...I think that we do get legal knowledge from sources other than case law, law reviews, and legal journals. The messages that hip hop portrays about the system and its dissatisfaction with the system are strong and deserve recognition. After all, hip hop artists likely have more personal experience with the system, either themselves personally, or through friends and family, than law professors and judges. Therefore, I think it is important to listen to what hip hop is saying about our system.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Anonymous. I agree with the majority of your post and am encouraged that people are thinking about what else is out there in terms of knowledge. The more we depend on scientific knowledge (Foucault anyone?), the less we actually know.

    I don't know that I necessarily agree that law professors or judges don't have the same amount of experience. They might have different experiences, but that is not necessarily bad. Some of the contributors on this blog have worked with state and local attorneys’ offices as well as public defenders and legal aid societies. Those experiences can be powerful and certainly open up space for critical engagement with the law.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.