Based on oral histories, the words of the song, also called “Stagger Lee,” were said to be formally written in 1911 and recorded by at least 50 different artists across a multitude of genres. “Stagger Lee” is one of the many songs that no amateur rapper should record, since Stagger Lee admitted in the song to shooting Billy Lyons.
Murder and death have been themes within music for centuries. Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, also known as “Death and the Maiden” (1824), and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830) are immersed in the theme and presence of death. Interestingly enough, Berlioz’s work offers commentary on the impact and effect of narcotics, in this case opium.
Rock lyrics are notorious for their fascination with the themes of death and murder. Examples include Judas Priest’s immortalization of the noted serial killer Jack the Ripper with “The Ripper” (1976) and Ozzy Osbourne’s ode to Charles Manson, “Bloodbath in Paradise” (1988). Most haunting is the Grateful Dead’s plea “Dire Wolf,” which was quickly connected to the 1969 murders committed by the Zodiac Killer.
None of these artists was ever accused of a crime solely based on their gruesome fascination with crime and violence as expressed in their morbid lyrics, although many of the aforementioned have had repeated bouts with the law. From the graphic, misogynistic and utterly violent expressions of gangsta rap to the overwhelmingly self-indulged musings on money, sex, drugs and cars found in much of mainstream rap, rap is both defendant and key witness in its own trial.
Rap lyrics tell stories. These stories voice the internal and external challenges of nihilism, paranoia, anxiety and trauma-induced laments associated with poverty, homelessness, unemployment and addiction in addition to other expressions from within and about the underbelly of society.
Rap music tells stories, stories that offer intimate portrayals of places, people and situations that many try their hardest to avoid. Stories that share “How to Make a Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents” or that reveal how to “Get Rich or Die Tryin”.
Unfortunately, what is really on trial are the stereotypical personas of the black and brown males who use their creativity to articulate images of inner-city living. The use of rap lyrics to send boys and men of color to prison is wrong.
Emmett G. Price III, Ph.D., is associate professor of music at Northeastern University in Boston. He is the author of Hip Hop Culture and editor of several works, including The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide. Follow him on Twitter.