“Targeted by Who?” America?: How Hip-Hop Exposed Systemic Racism withing the US Criminal Justice System

By Kelsea Hurley ’23

LAS 410: Rap, Hip-Hop, and Decolonizing the Classroom

The scope of this paper encapsulates key aspects of systemic racism and the integration of hip-hop while highlighting the main components of this LAS 410 course. For the final research paper, students focus on their area of interest, whether embedded in their major or intended career field. This student targeted the U.S. criminal justice system as they are now working on their master’s in that area of study. The paper illustrated many specific lyrical and cultural examples highlighting the interrelatedness of hip-hop music from the 1970s to the present.

The history of oppression is retold through hip-hop in ways the author focuses on in many illustrations throughout the paper. The student writes, “Because of this, hip-hop artists are presented with a huge opportunity to educate those who are blind to the injustices that exist.” Hip-hop continues to play an integral role in giving voice to the voiceless and power to the oppressed.

-Dr. Sarah Van Waardhuizen


The U.S. criminal justice system has subjected Black Americans to countless decades of injustice and unequal treatment under the law. There exist many stereotypes and associations that link Blackness with crime, violence, threat, and aggression (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018), and this has negatively affected Black Americans when it comes to how they are treated by police, lawyers, judges, juries, and more. While only constituting about 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black Americans are the main victims here, making up about 40 percent of the nation’s inmate population (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). This makes it so clear that the criminal justice system is racially biased and systematically targeting Black people. As one of the most influential forms of popular culture in the world today, hip-hop represents a type of cultural expression that combats these injustices and stereotypes that have been formed about what it is like to be Black in America. Hip-hop has influenced an entire generation to form a strong distrust for the criminal justice system because of how it systematically targets Black Americans. Artists evoke the history of oppression through the language and song of hip-hop to try and make the listeners see the truth behind this horrible reality (Dutra, 2020). It is very important to recognize that the connection between hip-hop and the lived experiences of the youth of color makes it an especially useful cultural tool to analyze and critique their world and the social forces that impact them (Graves et al., 2020).

“Targeted by who? Amerca”-How hip-hop has exposed systemic racism within the U.S. criminal justice system.

America’s criminal justice system is in a league of its own.There is a disturbingly large number of various groups who suffer at the hands of this system, rather than being protected by it. The harsh reality is that there is extreme racial injustice that has never truly been stopped in this country, with the U.S. criminal justice system being the main reason why this is. In a society that has continued to be severely unjust toward people of color, this violence and injustice has only grown worse, specifically toward Black Americans. However, these issues have been brought to light largely because of hip-hop culture. Built on a foundation of Black America, hip-hop has emerged as a response to the current inequities and discrimination that has been experienced for far too long, especially within the criminal justice system. Proactive policing, aggressive prosecution, severe sentencing, mass incarceration, and the world’s most extensive system of penal control are all what the U.S. criminal justice system revolves around (Garland, 2023). While only constituting about 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black Americans are the main victims here, making up about 40 percent of the nation’s inmate population (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). By looking at these numbers, the criminal justice system is racially biased and systematically targeting Black people. For decades, there have been stereotypes and associations that have linked Blackness with crime, violence, threat, and aggression (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). Hip-hop artists have worked to dismiss these stereotypes and instead teach listeners about how the criminal justice system has disempowered people of color.

One major issue with the criminal justice system that hip-hop exposes is how crime and punishment are extremely unfair, inequitable, and biased against people of color and the poor (Cummings, 2010). Black Americans are five times more likely than Whites to be incarcerated, handcuffed, searched, and arrested (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). Rather than protecting these individuals, specifically those who live in lower-income neighborhoods, the justice system instead targets these communities and brutalizes them. America leads the world in its staggering incarceration rates, deploying extremely intense and extensive penal controls that unfairly affect minorities. Additionally, American police are responsible for more civilian deaths than any other police force in the developed world (Garland, 2023). A lot of hip-hop music relays a similar message, showing that law enforcement targets minority youth with the expectation that most are involved in illegal activities and that the criminal justice system often prefers that Black youths be placed in jail or prison whether they are guilty or not (Cummings, 2010). N.W.A. ‘s “FTP” is a prime example of this. It is situated as a “protest song” which tells the tale of young Black men’s frustration with policing and a lack of accountability in the criminal justice system (Tibbs, 2015). In a way, this song, and many others like it have directed listeners’ attention to these discriminatory behaviors performed not only by police officers but also by prosecutors and judges as well.

While it may be believed that the days of slavery are in the past, it has actually continued into the U.S. prison system. In fact, the history of law enforcement in the United States is linked to the history of slavery and colonialism in early America (Hinton & Cook, 2021). Modern day hip-hop music seeks to educate youth of color on how to rebuild their communities after these periods of slavery, colonization, Jim Crow, and civil rights battles (Nocella II, 2014). However, institutional racism can still be seen throughout almost all aspects of society. While slavery may no longer exist in the form of servitude and labor, it can now be found in penal control today. More African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison, in jail, on probation or 4 parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began (Nocella II, 2014). Lil’ Wayne’s song “DontGetIt” identifies issues like this by saying, “Got this White guy on there talking ‘bout Black guys, talking about how Black guys are targeted. Targeted by who? America. You see, one in every one hundred Americans are locked up. But one in every nine Black Americans are locked up” (2008).

In another manner, once Africans were brought to the United States as slaves, their expressive cultures, especially musical ones, have provided opportunities for resistance, critique, and education (Nocella II, 2014). This is still reflected in hip-hop music to this day. Rap and hip-hop music emerged within the Black community in the boroughs of New York City as a musical genre that hoped to challenge the cultural dominant through a combination of defensiveness and willful optimism, not as a call for violence from gang-infested streets like many listeners perceive it to be (Nocella II, 2014). This music is still constantly stigmatized as violent, misogynistic, and threatening. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the fact that these ‘negative’ messages of some lyrics are far fewer than the extensive number of messages from the dominant White, capitalist, colonized, U.S. imperialist culture that promotes patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and White supremacy (Nocella II, 2014).

The perception of hip-hop music being controversial came to be, not just because of the explicit political and violent counter-culture messages, but because these messages were being heard and received widely by inner city youth and by White suburban youth across the country (Cummings, 2010). Furthermore, there are some individuals from the dominant White group who may argue that Blacks are policed and punished more because they do commit more crimes, not because the system is biased. Just like they would say that people of color make up a majority of prison inmates because they commit a majority of serious crimes. The same justification is made in regard to racially disparate police killings, where even a police officer once said that Black civilians “probably ought to be shot more” due to their high rates of criminal conduct (Garland, 2023). Similarly, prosecutors and courts put so many Black men behind bars, they insist, because the authorities are striving to make Black communities safe – and have succeeded in doing so – to the resounding benefit of “the law-abiding members” of communities of color (Garland, 2023). In response to these more conservative viewpoints and comments, hip-hop artists retaliated by further promoting and standing behind their socially conscious messages. For instance, Ice-T once said:

“They are not really after me for that, [law enforcement and critics are] after me because of the educational level I’m giving the people. And I’m telling them, I am giving them the guts to say, ‘Fuck em.’ See, this is what scares them. They are scared of one brother yelling out ‘the system can ‘kiss my ass.’ This could cause a problem”
(Cummings, 2010).

When it comes to exposing the deep-rooted issues in the criminal justice system, these artists are providing a voice for the voiceless. Hip-hop has influenced an entire generation to develop a deep distrust of the system that systematically targets Black Americans. The way artists evoke the history of oppression through the language and song of hip-hop to try and make the listeners see the truth behind reality is such a power to hold (Dutra, 2020). The connection between hip-hop and the lived experiences of the youth of color makes it an especially useful cultural tool to analyze and critique their world and the social forces that impact them (Graves et al., 2020).

The biggest crime the U.S. criminal justice system has committed is that it has become such an extreme race-based institution where Black Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than their White counterparts (Quigley, 2012). However, this presents the youth of color with a unique opportunity to build a form of resilience against the negative impacts of these oppressive systems through the development of critical consciousness that hip-hop music raises. As one of the most influential forms of popular culture in the world today, hip-hop represents a type of cultural expression that allows its consumers and producers to understand the unequal distribution of power and privilege, specifically in the United States (Graves et al., 2020). Logic’s song “America” puts this into perspective when one of his lyrics reads, “In the name of the government rich White men, while the rest be suffering” (2017). Kendrick Lamar has released many conscious hip-hop songs in response to systemic racism, and he is a major advocate for racial justice. His song “The Blacker the Berry” speaks on this by saying, “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture” (2015). One of the main reasons why White Americans have failed to recognize the existence of structural racism in the criminal justice system – and in general – is the lack of education and the presence of miseducation on the topic (Rucker & Richeson, 2021). Because of this, hip-hop artists are presented with a huge opportunity to educate those who are blind to the injustices that exist. For White Americans, this music opens their eyes to a different perspective of what it is like to be Black in America. For Black Americans, this shows the direct and intense experiences with racial discrimination in criminal justice that they have more or less grown accustomed to.

For most of U.S. history, when looking at racial inequality in criminal justice, American elites and institutions have proclaimed the stereotype that Black Americans are inherently more ‘criminal’ than others – be it due to biology or culture – thus justifying the group’s unequal treatment and outcomes (Rucker & Richeson, 2021). Even when hearing hip-hop’s defense to this shut-off way of thinking, these same people would argue that “hip-hop culture rose out of the gang-dominated street culture, and aspects of the gangs are still defining features of hip-hop” (Aprahamian, 2019). While it is certainly a challenge to get through to these individuals, hip-hop music can help the youth of color find their identities and a voice that pushes back against these social constructions of racial minority groups, along with building a sense of consciousness that they can use to challenge oppressive social forces and the criminal justice system that is situated against them (Graves et al., 2020). “Everybody has a voice, don’t you dare stay silent” (Dax, 2020).

List of Hip-Hop/Rap Songs that Highlight Systemic Racism, Police Brutality, and an Unjust System

Alright – Kendrick Lamar
America – Logic
Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free) – Lupe Fiasco
Baltimore – Prince
Be Free – J. Cole
The Bigger Picture – Lil Baby
Black America Again (ft. Stevie Wonder) – Common
Black Like Me – Mickey Guyton
Black Lives Matter – Dax Black
Steel in the Hour of Chaos – Public Enemy
The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar
Blue Lights – Jorja Smith
Captured On a iPhone – Dre
Changes (ft. Talent) – 2Pac
The Charade – D’Angelo and The Vanguard
Claimin’ I’m a Criminal – Brand Nubian
Constables – O.C.
Cops Shot the Kid (ft. Kanye West) – Nas
Criminal Minded – Boogie Down Productions
Crooked Officer – Geto Boys
The Day The N ****z Took Over – Dr. Dre
The Devil Made Me Do It – Paris
DontGetIt – Lil’ Wayne
Don’t Die – Killer Mike
Don’t Don’t Do It! – N.E.R.D. & Kendrick Lamar
Don’t Shoot – The Game
Enough – Eric Bellinger
Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy
Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Freedom of Speech – Immortal Technique
Front Lines – Conway the Machine
F**k tha Police – N.W.A G
Code – Geto Boys
Gang Shit – Marlon Craft
Gangsta Gangsta – N.W.A.
Get By – Talib Kweli
Good Kid – Kendrick Lamar
Hands Up – Vince Staples
High for Hours – J. Cole
Hip Hop Police (ft. Slick Rick) – Chamillionaire
Hold You Down – Childish Gambino
I Am George Floyd – Lil B
I Can’t Breathe – H.E.R.
Illegal Search – LL COOL
J Insert Here (ft. Haley Smalls) – Kardinal
Official Invasion – Jeru the Damaja
January 28th – J. Cole
Keep Ya Head Up – 2Pac
LAND OF THE FREE – Joey Bada$$
Lockdown – Anderson .Paak
Man Plans God Laughs – Public Enemy
Me Against the World – 2Pac
The Message – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Mr. Officer – Tee Grizzley
Murder to Excellence – Jay-Z & Kanye West
Never Let Me Down – Kanye West
New National Anthem – T.I.
New Slaves – Kanye West
Nothin New – 21 Savage
Otherside of America – Meek Mill
Paranoia – Chance the Rapper
The People – Jim Jones & Harry Fraud
Pig Feet – Terrace Martin & Denzel Curry
Police State – Dead Prez
Power – Rapsody
Reagan – Killer Mike
Rosa Parks – Outkast
Say It Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
Sly Fox – Nas
Snitch – Lil’ Wayne
Sound of da Police – KRS-One
Stand Up – Cassidy
State of the Union (STFU) – Public Enemy
Strange Fruition – Lupe Fiasco
Testify – Common
The Stone Throwers (Gone in a Blink) – Shad
This is America – Childish Gambino
Trapped – 2Pac
Walking in the snow – Run the Jewels
We Will Not – T.I.
We Will Not Tolerate – Freestyle Fellowship
What’s Free (ft. Rick Ross & Jay-Z) – Meek Mill
Where Is The Love? – Black Eyed Peas
White America – Eminem
Who Got the Camera? – Ice Cube
6 ‘N the Mornin’ – Ice-T
24 – TOBi
16 Shots – VIC MENSA
911 Is a Joke – Public Enemy
99 Problems – Jay-Z

Works Cited

Aprahamian, S. (2019). Hip-hop, gangs, and the criminalization of African American culture: A critical appraisal of “Yes Yes Y’all.” Journal of Black Studies, 50(3), 298-315.

Cummings, A. (2010). Thug life: Hip-hop’s curious relationship with criminal justice. Santa Clara Law Review, 50(2), 515-546.

Dax. (2020). Black Lives Matter [Song – Single].

Dutra, P. (2020) “The ultimate drive by”: Racionais MC’s, Ice Cube, and the pursuit of Blackness. Revista Brasileira de Literatura Comparada, 23(43), 42-55.

Garland, D. (2023). The current crisis of American criminal justice: A structural analysis. Annual Review of Criminology, 6, 43-63.

Graves, D. A., et al. (2020). Introduction: Teaching for critical consciousness at the intersection of critical media literacy and hip hop education. The International Journal of Critical Media
Literacy, 2(1), 1-8.

Hetey, R. C., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2018). The numbers don’t speak for themselves: Racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 183-187.

Hinton, E., & Cook, D. (2020). The mass criminalization of Black Americans: A historical overview. Annual Review of Criminology, 4, 261-286.

Kendrick Lamar. (2015). The Blacker the Berry [Song]. On To Pimp a Butterfly. Top Dawg Entertainment.

Lil’ Wayne. (2008). DontGetIt [Song]. On Tha Carter III. Cash Money Records.

Logic. (2017). America (feat. Black Thought, Chuck D, No I.D.) [Song]. On Everybody (Deluxe Edition). Def Jam Recordings.

Nocella II, A. J. (2014). Transforming justice and hip hop activism in action. Counterpoints, 453, 210-223.

Rucker, J. M., & Richeson, J. A. (2021). Toward an understanding of structural racism: Implications for criminal justice. Science, 374(6565), 286-290.

Tibbs, D. F. (2015). Hip hop and the New Jim Crow: Rap music’s insight on mass incarceration. University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class, 15(2), 209-228