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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These same stereotypes make it difficult for many people to regard rap as a legitimate art form in the first place. According to Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown University (and a former prosecutor himself), "Some people have always had a hard time conceptualizing the young black men who are the primary creators of hip-hop as artists."

For Butler, this helps explain why rap lyrics are so frequently introduced. But it also reveals a glaring double standard. "Using lyrics as evidence against hip-hop artists is as preposterous as bringing organized crime charges against the author of The Godfather or gang charges against the director of Scarface," he says. "It's art, stupid."

Erik Nielson is assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond. His research focuses on African-American literature and hip-hop culture.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Paul Butler as a George Washington University professor. He joined the faculty of Georgetown Law this week. We regret the error.

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