In March, Russell Simmons, godfather of DefJam records and hip hop mogul, led a group of protesters in New York City challenging the harsh New York drug laws known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Hundreds gathered outside Governor David Paterson's Manhattan office to call on the Governor and various state representatives to repeal the 1970s era drug laws enacted by then Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws, now famous for harsh mandatory-minimum sentences and the hugely disproportionate impact it has on African American and Latino offenders, was severely criticized as illegitimate and profane by many attending the protest, including Simmons. The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973 and are composed of mandatory-minimum prison punishment based upon the type and amount of drug an offender is arrested with. Originally, the laws were intended to capture large drug kingpins, but evidence indicates now that most of the individuals imprisoned under these laws are low-level, non-violent offenders, many with no previous criminal history.
Simmons was quoted at the protest as saying:
"We are at the pivotal point where our hard work pays off, [b]ut we can't let up now. The fact is the Governor and State Senator both fought for the changes that the assembly has proposed to them. But both Governor Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith need to hear our voices. They are being pushed by forces that are not interested in changing this horrible law which has devastated black and brown communities for two generations."
Through 2009, it is estimated that of the 12,000 individuals convicted on Rockefeller charges, 90% are African American or Latino and cost the state of New York $45,000 per person annually.
Simmons participation in this protest brings to mind the many and various ways that hip hop artists and leaders have taken political positions of importance in the past. Groups like Public Enemy, The Roots, N.W.A. and artists like KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Common and Mos Def have certainly impacted society with their lyrics and political sensibilities. Still, the question is often raised as to whether hip hop and hip hop artists can genuinely contribute to positive social change? Can hip hop and socially conscious artists truly affect social change and impact society in a positive way?
This very question was debated last weekend at the "Conceptualizing Substantive Justice" conference held at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law (April 17-18, 2009). A panel at that conference engaged in robust discussion in connection with hip hop and its curious relationship with criminal justice. Many conference attendees wondered aloud and debated whether hip hop has the potential to overcome its negative encumberances (violence, misogyny, homophobia, materialism, hypermasculinity) so that its important and genuine societal critique and plea for social change can be heard. Can hip hop still be heard?
- andré douglas pond cummings