Should Rap Lyrics Really Be Admissible in Court?

Debate around the use of rap lyrics in court has been rampant after an article written by assistant liberal arts professor at the University of Richmond Erik Nielson and associate professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California Charis E. Kubrin, appeared in The New York Times.

Rap lyrics are used in court as evidence of crimes for which the artist is on trial, with recent focus on New Jersey as the trial of Vonte Skinner happened in the State’s Supreme Court.
Skinner’s prosecutor extensively used Skinner’s rap lyrics as evidence of his involvement in shooting a man in 2005.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, in the last year, of the 18 cases in which courts considered the admissibility of rap as evidence, they were permitted nearly 80 percent of the time.

Generally, rap lyrics are used in trials for murder, though they have been used in a variety of cases.

In an article for The Root, Nielson gives the example of rapper Clyde Smith (aka “G-Red” or “Tattoo Face”): “In December of 2010, Smith and three other people were pulled over when Smith was allegedly clocked going 19 mph over the speed limit.

When he couldn’t produce a driver’s license, police searched his car and found him with the prescriptions drugs hydrocodone, Xanax and Soma, which he had purchased in neighboring Texas.

Despite the fact that he had prescriptions for all of the drugs, that no pills were missing from any of the containers and that he had a documented medical condition that justified his use of the drugs, he was charged with possession with intent to distribute.”

Despite the vagueness of the evidence against Smith, he was convicted, many believe based on the prosecution’s use of rap lyrics at his trial.

Additionally, Nielson, in an interview for CBC’s radio show Q, commented: “Prosecutors charge artists with something like a terrorist threat based solely on the content of the lyrics. That is less common but there have been a few of those cases fairly recently and people have been sent to jail for it.”

“Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, conducted a study in the late 1990s to measure the impact of gangsta rap lyrics on juries,” Nielson and Kubrin’s article states.

“Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics.

Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.”

“I think many Americans have trouble conceiving of the young men of colour, who are the primary producers of rap music, as artists,” Nielson explained on Q, and added, “It becomes even easier to read these lyrics as some sort of autobiography when what we’re hearing in especially gangsta rap, the violence and things like that, maps perfectly into commonly held stereotypes about the criminality of these young men of colour.”

“One common tactic is to present a defendant’s raps as autobiography. Even when defendants use a stage name to signal their creation of a fictional first-person narrator, rap about exploits that are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, and make use of figurative language, prosecutors will insist that the lyrics are effectively rhymed confessions.

“No other form of fictional expression is exploited this way in the courts,” Nielson and Kubrin note.

“Nobody believes that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno or that Bret Easton Ellis carried out the gory murders described in American Psycho,” the article continues.

Nielson and Kubrin do identify that, unlike many artists, rappers often continue their personas off-stage.

However, “those familiar with the [rap] genre understand that this posturing is often nothing more than a marketing pose,” they say.

“No other form of fictional expression to my knowledge, and certainly no other musical genre, is used like this in courts,” remarked Nielson.

“Although appellate courts in Massachusetts and Maryland have recently reversed convictions after citing prosecutors for their improper use of rap lyrics or videos as evidence, most similar appeals are unsuccessful,” says Nielson and Kubrin’s article.

“Just this summer, the Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the admissibility of rap lyrics as evidence in a first-degree murder case. A definitive ruling by the Supreme Court of New Jersey rejecting this use of rap music could help turn the tide.”

About Simon Semchuk 51 Articles
Simon Semchuk writes primarily on the arts and queer issues. A third-year English major, he is also interested in theatre, literature, and fluffy animals.