When Rap Lyrics Stand Trial
If artists' songs are used against them in court, what's really being judged: hip-hop or the crime?
In both of these cases and many others, courts effectively deny rap the status of art. Rather than accept it as a kind of poetic fiction, they instead take it as a literal expression of reality. This is no doubt thanks in part to testimonials from rappers themselves, who, in order to be regarded as authentic, frequently claim that what they rap about is a life they've experienced firsthand. Judges and juries don't necessarily know that this is as much marketing strategy as it is reality, an ignorance that prosecutors either share or exploit.
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.
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.