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New American Songbook

Prison Narratives In Hip Hop


When 24-year old Chance the Rapper accepted the 2017 BET Humanitarian Award, his brief speech touched on a lot of big ideas: school reform, police brutality and black empowerment.

Chance began his speech by calling for the release of prisoners convicted for marijuana-related offenses, as a condition of further legalization of the drug. More radically, he connected the imprisonment of these people with the fortunes currently being made in the legal marijuana industry.

The general theme of abolition has run through hip hop for as long as there have been DJs and emcees, although the theme is often expressed through a variety of modes, including moderate prison reform, abolition of police, and full emancipation for prisoners. Authorial perspective also employs a wide range of locations, including raps by prisoners, verses as letters sent from the outside, or emancipatory refrains. The liberation of Mumia-Abu Jamal has been a recurring theme for countless hip hop artists for years. Both Public Enemy and Run the Jewels have written songs from the perspective of a prison rioter, and in Nas’ ‘If I Ruled the World’, he imagines a world absent enclosures of all sorts, not only without prisons and police, but also without borders.

In 2014, 1 in 37 people in America was under some form of correctional supervision. The United States counts towards five percent of the world’s population, but holds over 21% of the world’s prisoners. Of these prisoners, more than half are African American and Latino. It’s not really surprising, therefore, that we find prison narratives in hip hop. What is surprising is how little it gets talked about elsewhere.