Professor Paul Butler Brings Hip-Hop for Justice to Georgetown Law

September 4, 2012 — It’s not unheard of to see seven judges at a Georgetown Law conference or hear seven government officials speak at a panel discussion. But on August 29, Professor Paul Butler welcomed seven Brazilian hip-hop artists to the school. The musicians, dancers and dance educators were in this country for a two-week cultural exchange through the U.S. State Department called “Empowerment Through Hip-Hop.”

The State Department asked Butler — the author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice (New Press, 2009) — to speak to the group about achieving social change through hip-hop music. Joining Butler was alum Justin Hansford (L’07), an assistant professor of law at St. Louis University who has used hip-hop to teach literacy to high-risk students in Brazil.

Butler, a former federal prosecutor, told how he used to “put people in prison — black people and Latino people.” At the same time, he was listening to Run DMC, Lauryn Hill and other musicians calling for racial, economic and criminal justice through their work. “I had questions about what I was doing … the artists were telling their stories in a way the judges didn’t understand.”

Hip-hop is a billion-dollar industry in the United States — one where the top artists are African American and Latino and 70 percent of the consumers are white, according to Butler. Meanwhile, the United States incarcerates 730 people out of every 100,000 — more people than any other nation — the majority of whom are African American and Latino. 

The Brazilians told stories of police and political corruption in their country, and explained how they are using hip-hop music to keep students off drugs. 

“Hip-hop has come a long way,” said Butler. “The important work that these artists and activists are doing is inspiring; it was an honor to meet with them, talk to them and learn from them.” 

-- Ann W. Parks