Professor Donald Tibbs presented “Law, Literature and Hip Hop” as part of the Oxford Round Table on Literature, Language and the Arts on March 17.
The presentation explored themes of black identity in a discriminatory and oppressive society that appear in “Native Son,” by Richard Wright, “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois and “invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison. Tibbs then traced those themes through Jay Z’s “99 Problems.”
The song’s account of a young black man’s interactions with a police officer who pulls him over for speeding and then attempts to search his car illustrates that “in routine interactions with the police, race is always present,” Tibbs said.
In the song, Tibbs said, “the narrative is flipped on its head, where he actually resists the stereotype of black male criminality by using his legal prowess to resist succumbing to state power. While the police officer makes several attempts at capturing Jay Z, he is rebutted at every point of entry into what turns into a roadside constitutional battle.”
As the officer threatens to bring K-9 dogs to the scene, the song concludes that even a black man who knows his rights cannot win a battle against the state.
This observation makes Jay Z seem prophetic, Tibbs said, noting that “eight months after ‘99 Problems’ hit the airways, the Supreme Court ruled in Illinois v. Caballes that the use of drug-sniffing dogs during a routine traffic stop does not unreasonably violate the Fourth Amendment.”
Tibbs is the author of an upcoming book on Hip Hop and the law.