Hip-Hop & the War on Drugs

In the 1980s, Public Enemy, KRS-One, N.W.A, Ice-T, among many other hip hop artists began describing through stark rhymes and narratives, a United States criminal justice system that was unfair and that targets and profiles Black people. Lyrics by these artists became, in Chuck D’s words, “the Black CNN”. Artists influenced and molded a generation.

Hip hop has become Black America’s first response to current inequalities and discrimination. Hip hop stars often describe to their eager audiences, including millions of suburban white kids, the inequalities in criminal justice system, including the specific targeting of Black and Brown communities, the massive prison population disparity, the unfair imprisonment of crack dealers versus suburban coke dealers, and the American epidemic of police brutality inspired by the gang mentality that infests police forces. The notion of the “criminalBlackman”, how the war on drugs influenced hip hop culture, the evolution of the genre in relation to the war on drugs, and how it stacks up against other genres. 


Representations are how we come to understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. This means we see, experience, and understand the world through layers of images which have been created by others, primarily through the mainstream media which we consume throughout our lives. The mainstream media is not immediately responsible, they are not North American lawmakers, at least not directly, but they play a key role. The images we associate with the War on Drugs are part of a social construction, images assembled together which tell us what a particular social issue is about. Crime stories reported daily in our local newspapers and on television, the image of crime, is that of the “criminalBlackman”. The criminal justice system mirrors what the media presents as the real dangers in society. This characterization of the “criminalBlackman” is based on regular reports that Black and Brown people, men in particular, are overrepresented in crime statistics relative to their proportion in the population and that Black men have higher rates of criminal involvement portraying Black men as the most dangerous of criminals. Examining offenses relative to the size of the population takes attention away from dominant groups and places the blame onto smaller groups who then become defined as the problem. 


To be more specific, consider the types of crimes that tend to receive most of the attention from the criminal justice system, legislators, and the media, and include these eight different offenses: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny theft, and arson. According to the 2003 Uniform Crime Reports coming out of the USA, white people accounted for 70.6 percent of all arrests; 60.5 percent of all arrests for violent offenses; 68.2 percent of all property crime offenses; and 71.4 percent of arrests for non-violent offenses. Those numbers have been consistent over time, but this has led not to a consideration of the participation of white people in crime but rather to focus on the approximately 27 percent participation of Black people who make up about 13 percent of the total population in the US. For example, serial killers and mass murderers have been catalogued by the FBI and others by the general description of a white male between the age of twenty-five and thirty-five. The more detailed descriptions include a string of adjectives such as “cunning”, “handsome”, and “intense”, all geared toward the view of the given individual as an unlikely suspect; the same could be said for white collar criminals. These offenders are seldom considered as dangerous or harmful and most certainly are not Black. 


In the era of “colorblindness”, it is no longer socially acceptable to use race, explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Instead, the criminal justice system labels people of color as criminals and engages in all the practices supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all ways it was once legal to discriminate against Black people. Once labelled as a felon, you face employment and housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, and the exclusion from jury service. The criminal justice system has been used to effectively re-create caste in America. 


In less than 30 years, the US penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million. The United States now has the highest incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, including highly repressive regimes like China and Iran. The War on Drugs explains the explosive incarceration in the United States and the emergence of a vast, new racial under-caste. In fact, drug convictions alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal system, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population between 1985 and 2000. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000% since the drug war began, an increase that does not support the patterns of drug use or sales. In some states, Black individuals constitute 80 to 90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.  As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million people on probation or parole. Millions more have felony records and spend their lives in and out of prison, unable to find work or shelter, or to vote or to serve on juries. 


Most people believe that the “War on Drugs” was launched in response to rising drug crime and the emergence of crack cocaine in the inner city communities, but drug crime was actually declining, not rising, when President Ronald Reagan officially declared the drug war in 1982. President Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term “War on Drugs”, but President Reagan turned the rhetorical war into a literal one. The war had little to do with drug crime and much to do with racial politics. Republican party strategists found that promising to get tough on the racially defined “others” could be highly successful in persuading poor and working class whites to defect from the Democrats and join the Republican Party. H.R. Halderman, President Richard Nixon’s former Chief of Staff, reportedly summed up the strategy by stating “The whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to”. A couple years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner city communities and the Reagan administration seized on this development, hiring staff who were responsible for publicizing inner city drug users and the drug related violence. The goal was to make inner city crack use and violence a media sensation that would gain public support for the drug war and would lead Congress to pump millions of dollars in additional funding to it. 


A staggering amount of people of color have been arrested and convicted for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four of five drug arrests were for possession, only one of five for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s, the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle class white communities as in the inner city. 


Actual drug use patterns among Black and white people are very similar and the use of most substances is less among Black youth compared to other youth. However, there are phenomenal differences in drug related arrest and incarceration rates for Black and white people. Specifically, Black people constitute 13% of all drug users, but 35% of those arrested for drug possession, 55% of persons convicted and 74% of people sent to prison. Laws which include mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that penalize crack cocaine infractions at a phenomenally higher level than those involving other forms of cocaine. In addition, crack is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for first offence possession . A person convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine automatically receives a 5-year prison term. In 2000, 84.7% of crack cases were brought against Black people, 9% against Latinx, and only 5.6% against whites. White people, however, comprised a much higher proportion of crack users. 


The war on drugs shaped the Black community but also helped mold hip hop. In the early 1980s, most of the socially conscious hip hop records mentioned drugs as one of the many problems affecting Black Americans. When they did touch on drugs, they were almost always depicted negatively, because at the time, doing drugs was a character flaw, and the songs usually portrayed the speaker as a bystander trapped in a “ghetto”, observing it, not participating in it. Hip hop’s journey between those two mindsets happened as the unemployment rate among Black men soared to twice the level among white men.  During the economic boom of the 1990s, the Clinton years, Black men were the only group to experience a steep increase in real joblessness, a development directly traceable to the increase in the penal population. Jobless rates during the 90s for non-college Black men was at 42%. 


The prevalence of drugs alongside the lack of jobs made joining the drug trade easy. Many young Black men felt they lacked better options and crack allowed them to support their families. MCs who grew up in the 1980s would brand themselves veterans of the drug trade because drugs dominated their economic possibilities, but by the end of that decade, hip hop had been reduced to gruesome first person accounts of selling, addiction, gangs, guns, the police and prison. They saw themselves in a nation that assumed they were criminals, so they doubled down. Now, rappers like Nas, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent need to claim drug trade stripes to earn acceptance among hip hop elite . 


In the beginning, hip hop’s primary audience was Black, male and urban. Since the 90s, young suburban white men have become hip hop’s dominant audience. When its audience was Black, hip hop embraced Black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness, it was rebellious and almost always antidrug, after its commodification, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the “criminalBlackman”. 


Some experts have suggested the prominence of drugs in hip hop music may also be related to the business connections between drugs and rap. First, is the apparent commodification of personal connections to drug crimes and addiction to promote a rapper and their labels. In the past, drug convictions could really damage a star’s career, however, it's commonplace for musicians to turn negative publicity into lucrative marketing strategies. Second, some groups like N.W.A have reportedly used drug money to provide the financial backing for record labels. Third, drug related themes have actually helped sell rap music. 


Data suggests the number of illicit substances mentioned in song lyrics spiked between 1970 and the mid-2000s. However, the trend took a dip after that time approaching similar levels to the early 1990s in 2013. If you ask the casual music fan which genres are more likely to bring up recreational substance use, hip hop or contemporary electronic music are likely to be the most common answers. A study of substance use in popular movies and music sponsored by the US Office of National Drug Control Policy examined 1000 of the most popular songs from 1996 to 1997 across five genres of music popular with youth. The major finding from the study was the dramatic differences among music categories, with substance use references being particularly common in rap. Illicit drugs were mentioned in 63% of rap songs versus 10% of lyrics in the other categories. In song lyrics that mentioned illicit drugs, marijuana was by far the most frequent of the illicit drugs mentioned at 63%. In the beginning of 2017, another study revealed that out of eight categories, country actually leads the way with a 1.6 drug references per song on average, followed closely by jazz and pop music. Hip hop fell in last place with less than 1.3 mentions behind folk, challenging the assumptions that all rappers are lyrical drug peddlers. 


Rags to riches and street to boardroom success stories have become some of the most recognized identity myths at the core of the rap industry. Rap’s reference to drugs do not occur alone, instead, include connections to criminal activity of many kinds. There are many multi-platinum selling artists who have been incarcerated or are awaiting sentencing for charges including assault, gun possession, sexual assault, drug trafficking, robbery, and murder. These overlapping criminal connections have many rap critics compelled to address concerns on rap’s explicit even celebratory violence, homophobia, and misogyny. Within the context of criticism, both popular and academic, two approaches in dealing with rap’s explicitness have emerged: one approaches rap to use it for political ends by first rescuing the good parts from its commercialized and degraded aspects, the other approaches rap with the goal of accusing it of causing all that’s bad in the inner city. Both approaches perpetuate many of the same problematic connections that support drug laws. For many, rap remains a social practice with the sole purpose of social critique. For others, rap’s transgressions are mere reflections of either mainstream America’s long love affair with sensationalized violence, or the worst elements of inner city youth culture.  


When hip hop began creeping into the cassette players and minds of white American suburban youth, particularly with aggressive, violent, and counter culture lyrics, the general public, its legislators, and law enforcement began to take notice. Hip hop became the target for unwanted attention and criticism. New and aggressive critiques labeled hip hop as dangerous, irresponsible, and certain to lead listeners to violence while potentially upsetting the fragile balance of law and order in BIPOC communities. Despite intense criticism and attempts to discredit and eradicate hip hop music, including aggressive attacks launched by the FBI, CIA, local law enforcement across the US, hip hop has not just survived, but it has influenced and dominated a generation.