It’s hard to imagine Socrates in a Rocawear toga nodding his head to a Rockwilder beat, and there certainly is a distinction to be made between defending one’s self against allegations of manslaughter and of corrupting the youth, but it seems clear that Jay-Z’s “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” expresses a sentiment that Socrates could appreciate.
What we know of Socrates mostly comes from Plato’s early works, as it is generally agreed upon that his later works are his own projections onto Socrates and other accounts are few. In perhaps one of his most widely read works, Apology, Plato recounts the trial that eventually ended with Socrates being sentenced to death. If this account is to be believed, Socrates, defending himself against charges that he had corrupted the minds of Athenian youths, was less than apologetic; fitting the title, as the Greek “apology” loosely translates to “defense.” While he didn’t represent himself, due to his “big money” and “big lawyers to fight it,” Shawn Carter could certainly relate in 2000 when faced with charges that he stabbed a former business partner in a nightclub.
In this song, Jay-Z details his experiences with a corrupt legal system. The idea that our judicial system is less than fair is not uncommon, especially among rappers, who are usually confronted with their own (potentially fictional) lyrics as evidence of their (actual) guilt. Socrates defended his innocence by noting that he was simply exercising his liberty to speak freely while others were exercising their similar liberty to listen. He continued to argue that his trial was a farce and that his real guilt, if he had any, lay in stating facts that certain members of the public realm didn’t appreciate. Given that background, it’s hard not to see the relation between Socrates and Jay-Z, and – all pedophilia jokes aside – it’s much easier to imagine our beloved Socrates singing R. Kelly’s refrain: “Jigga, Kelly, not guilty. Try to charge me but I’m not guilty.”
In a bittersweet denouement, Jay-Z was found, as the song states, not guilty and went on to continue his descent into mediocrity; this from a regular listener of Reasonable Doubt. Socrates, as previously mentioned, was found guilty and sentenced to a death that he willingly accepted. It’s amusing to speculate on the effects were their outcomes reversed. Would Socrates have made the philosophical equivalent to Collision Course, Jay-Z’s much less than laudable record with Linkin Park? Would Jay have turned down Damon Dash’s offer to escape punishment, as Socrates had done to Crito? Just some “food for thought, dog. Get a plate.”