This week the Supreme Court of New Jersey is scheduled to hear final arguments in State v. Skinner, a case that could have a far-reaching impact on the criminal justice system.
Vonte Skinner, an admitted drug dealer and wannabe rapper, was arrested after a 2005 shooting and was found guilty in 2008 of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, largely on the basis of rap lyrics composed prior to the 2005 incident.
Here's a sample from the 13 pages of lyrics in question, which were found by police in his girlfriend's car and used as evidence of Skinner's motive and tendency toward violence:
Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin' quick.
Look in my palms, you can see what I'm gunnin' with.
I play no games when it comes to this war shit.
If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits.
Crackin' your chest when I show you how the force spits,
Makin' your mother wish she would have had an abortion.
Skinner's conviction was overturned in 2012 by an appellate court that said the lyrics should not have been admitted as evidence. Now the Supreme Court of New Jersey will give it's final review.
But regardless of the outcome in New Jersey, this prosecutorial tactic has gained momentum elsewhere. The Supreme Court of Nevada ruled last summer that rap lyrics can be allowed as evidence.
What we are now seeing is creative work by prosecutors to send to prison black and brown males who are also alleged criminals. Such use of song lyrics often prejudices juries by stereotyping the accused person as the personification of the character or caricature within the lyrics. As with the New Jersey case, the most extreme examples of this legal tactic rely solely on the lyrics, which are usually unassociated with the alleged crime, as the linchpin that proves guilt and sends the defendant to prison.
Let's be clear: Any defendant who is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with sound evidence is a criminal and should receive punishment. Yet rap lyrics are not credible witnesses.
From the early sounds of the black experience in the United States, lyrics have been coded with a number of savvy, sapient and strategic devices such as double entendre, allegory and hyperbole. Across all of the genres within the chronological history of music evolving from black neighborhoods, the role of the protagonist is powerful. From the spiritually enriched narratives within gospel music to the captivating stories found in blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, R&B and soul, the protagonist wears many hats and coats and now and then carries a piece. One of the great protagonists in popular-music history is Stagger Lee.
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.