Donald Tibbs gives Common Hour talk on hip hop, the American Constitution

By Izzy Schellenger || Staff Writer

Donald F. Tibbs, an associate professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law, gave this week’s Common Hour lecture on how the American Constitution is reflected in popular hip-hop music. Tibbs received his J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law before practicing at a law firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also been a lecturer in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and he was an assistant professor of law at the Southern University Law Center. Tibbs’s Common Hour lecture focused on the racialized nature of police brutality and how the transformation of the Constitution coincides with the transformation of hip-hop.

Tibbs began his lecture with a personal anecdote. He described one of his many encounters with the racialized system of policing in his hometown, Detroit, Michigan. The police would abuse the power of their badges, Tibbs told the audience, as a way to manipulate and control the black community. Their harassment rarely led to actual arrests, which demonstrated for Tibbs how the police were only interested in belittling, embarrassing, and harassing their victims. When he was 13 years old, Tibbs was held at gunpoint by a Detroit police officer for simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Tibbs and his friends were merely walking down the street when they attracted the attention of the police. Apparently, a nearby school had been broken into and Tibbs “fit the description” of the suspect. Even when he recited his knowledge of his constitutional rights, he ended up with a gun pointed at his head.

Tibbs stated that sometimes it’s difficult to love and respect the Constitution, especially because of its historically bad treatment of African Americans and minorities. The Numeration Clause, the Importation Clause, and the Fugitive Slave Clause are all connected to the current police brutality and injustice that has been used against blacks. Racial segregation can still be found in ghettos and in the modern prison industrial complex. Race is seen as an increased risk for criminal activity, which connects back to the centuries old concept, “negrophobia,” where people associate blackness with fear and suspicion. Tribbs described the Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court case that granted policemen to “stop and frisk” people if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion for doing so. This case’s decision gave the impression that “you can’t drive, walk, or talk while black.” History has been used to control minorities, to reduce black people to a sole criminal dimension, and to shape two separate judicial systems: one for whites and one for blacks.

The evolution of court cases, from Dred Scott v. Sandford to Plessy v. Ferguson, as well as the transformation of the American Constitution, can be connected to the transformation of American hip-hop music. Tibbs quoted song lyrics from artists such as Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. According to Tibbs, modern-day hip-hop suffers because its delivery overshadows the content of the lyrics. The public would rather attack the use of cursing in hip-hop instead of focusing on the messages.

Tibbs ended his Common Hour lecture with another personal anecdote from when he taught a course in Criminal Procedure. He noticed that he was no longer teaching to a majority of black students, so he could not longer rely on personal experiences in order to teach his lessons. He had to deconstruct race in a narrative that would be perceived as a lecture, not a rant. Tibbs found himself initially labeled as the “angry black man” who made his students afraid of participating in class and was given terrible feedback on the student-teacher evaluation forms. Tribbs described this experience as having a “professional gun to his head;” he could either change his method of teaching, or he could keep the risk of being fired.

But when Tibbs heard the song “Everything I Am” by Kanye West, his perspective changed because of how the powerful lyrics affected him. The song taught him the value of self-identification, to not conform as a teacher, and the importance of existing outside of the norm. After this realization, he decided to use a verse from Jay-Z’s song “99 Problems” as a way to teach his students about race and class. His students were mesmerized by the power behind the lyrics, and Tibbs was able to reach his students through rap. This moment demonstrated the cultural significance and influence that hip-hop carries in a society still stricken with the same themes of marginalization. 

Sophomore Izzy Schellenger is a staff writer. Her email is ischelle@fandm.edu.

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