When Rap Lyrics Stand Trial

If artists' songs are used against them in court, what's really being judged: hip-hop or the crime?

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Five months later, aspiring rapper Olutosin Oduwole also found himself on trial and facing jail time for his lyrics. In July 2007, Oduwole's car ran out of gas, forcing him to abandon it on the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University, where he was a student. When school authorities found the car, they also found a crumpled piece of paper stuffed between the seats on which Oduwole had made written reference to a PayPal account and included the lines, "If this account doesn't reach $50,000 in the next 7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!"

Police immediately searched Oduwole's apartment, where they found a legally acquired handgun. They also learned that he had been trying to purchase additional guns, also legally, and that was all they needed. Oduwole was charged with attempting to communicate a terrorist threat.

At the October 2011 trial, defense attorneys argued that Oduwole was an amateur rapper who took compulsive notes about ideas for his lyrics. They even brought in an expert witness who reviewed Oduwole's other notebooks of lyrics and compared them with the note.

She testified that the writings on the crumpled note were clearly an idea for a rap song or "the formative stages of a rap lyric." She also testified that Oduwole was an aspiring "gangsta" rapper and that his lyrics comported with what one might expect from someone in that subgenre. Nevertheless, the all-white jury convicted the 26-year-old Oduwole, who is black, and he was later sentenced to five years in prison.

However, even casual fans understand that exaggeration and hyperbole are hallmarks of the genre. Rappers are putting on an act, even if it's one that in some ways mirrors their reality. Their use of alternate names ought to make this obvious.

"Most rappers use a stage name or something other than their 'government name' when performing," Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, told The Root . "This suggests that they are characters with a persona."

And sometimes that persona is a far cry from the person behind it. Rick Ross, one of the most popular rappers today, uses his lyrics to portray a criminal lifestyle patterned after the real Rick Ross, a notorious Los Angeles gangster. The rapper -- whose real name is William Leonard Roberts II -- is no brazen criminal himself, though. In one of life's delightful ironies, it turns out that he once worked as a prison guard.

But focusing on a Rick Ross persona, or one like it, gives prosecutors a powerful tool at trial, especially when their cases are weak. And this, argues Andrea Dennis, is a reason to exclude rap lyrics altogether. "I tend to favor exclusion," she told The Root, "because of reliability and prejudice concerns that may result in conviction despite insufficient other evidence."

Although jurors are supposed to acquit when there's reasonable doubt, the weight of lyrics can be too great, particularly if those lyrics reinforce preconceived notions about the defendant. Indeed, as Boyd reminds us, in these trials authorities are often prosecuting someone "who already looms as a threatening stereotype in the minds of society."

Using lyrics, then, isn't just a matter of an art form being sacrificed for the sake of an easy conviction; it can also be a pernicious tactic that plays upon and perpetuates enduring stereotypes about the inherent criminality of young black men.