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University of Massachusetts Professor Tryon Woods Discusses the Legal and Political Origins of Explicit Hip-Hop Lyrics

February 24, 2012

Tryon Woods, a professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Crime & Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, discussed modern hip-hop artists’ use of violent and sexually charged lyrics to challenge the racial stereotypes rooted in “police power” jurisprudence.

Arguing “that policing always precedes the law,” Woods cited landmark Fourth Amendment Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio. In Terry, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures was not violated when a police officer stopped and frisked a suspect on the street with reasonable suspicion that the suspect had committed a crime. Woods claimed that, through Terry and cases like it, “the Law retroactively enshrined” stereotypical police practices under the guise of establishing a constitutionally valid police power.

Though often dismissed as vulgar and gratuitous, modern hip-hop’s explicit lyrical expression actually unveils and deconstructs many of the racial stereotypes etched in our legal and political landscape, Woods said. The use of violent and hyper-sexual lyrics offers vital criticism of traditional sources of oppression such as the police power, Woods proposed.

Woods observed that there is no better example of this concept than hip-hop artist Lil’ Wayne’s, “Mrs. Officer,” in which Lil’ Wayne casts himself as the sexual conqueror of an all-female police force. In “Mrs. Officer,” Lil’ Wayne transforms “ubiquitous racial stereotypes of sexuality and criminality” into sources of superiority, desirableness and prestige, Woods claimed. In fact, through “Mrs. Officer,” Lil’ Wayne “recasts black stereotypes and overturns traditional sources of black oppression” turning what was once the “conquest of the state into a conquest of his own,” Woods declared. As a result, hip-hop’s often misperceived lyrical expression not only challenges racial stereotypes but provides a verbal history of the legal and political structure which, in some ways, memorialized those stereotypes, Woods concluded.