Using Rap Lyrics as Criminal Evidence is a Travesty of Justice

Rappers are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other artists and the use of rap lyrics to prove guilt should be banned.

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In Atlanta, the criminal trial of rapper Young Thug (born Jeffery Williams) is underway. As a musician, “Thugger” (as his fans call him) is known for his innovation in the trap subgenre, his collaborations with artists like Future and Nicki Minaj, and his gender-bending fashion sense (which saw him don a lavender dress on the cover of his 2016 album No, My Name is Jeffery.) But Georgia prosecutors are claiming that he also runs a violent Atlanta gang called “Young Slime Life,” using his record label Young Stoner Life as a front. They’ve launched a RICO case against the label, and intend to use lyrics from Young Thug and his associates’ songs to “prove the nature of YSL as a racketeering enterprise, the expectations of YSL as a criminal street gang.” In a controversial move, Judge Ural Glanville has decided to admit selected lyrics as evidence in the trial. It’s a case with huge implications for the music industry, and for the politics of race and free speech in the United States. And in allowing young Black men to be tried for their words, rather than their actions, the judge is dead wrong. 

In the first place, it should be obvious that depicting violent crimes in a work of art, like a rap song, is not actually evidence that someone commits those crimes. That’s not what the word “evidence” means. If you want to prove, for instance, that someone committed a murder, you need things like fingerprints, bullet casings, CCTV footage, and so on. Just the fact that a suspect wrote “I’m a scary guy, I commit murders” in a poem or a diary wouldn’t prove anything. That might sound like a silly hypothetical, but some of the so-called evidence in the YSL trial is really that thin. For example, these are a few of the lyrics the prosecution will be citing:

Notice how vague and subjective these are? In the first two, it’s debatable whether the lyrics are even violent; the word “body” could easily refer to a sexual “body count,” rather than a corpse. Even the other lines don’t refer to specific crimes, just the general theme of violence and being a gangster. These are extremely common motifs in rap, used by everyone from Kendrick Lamar (“Don’t ask for your favorite rapper, he dead… I killed him”) to Drake (“I fuck with the mob and I got ties.”) By themselves, all they prove is that Young Thug, Yak Gotti (aka Deamonte Kendrick), and the other YSL rappers on trial are young guys from Atlanta who want to look tough. 

Instead, the use of lyrics in court serves to bias the jury, tapping into longstanding prejudices about rap and the people who create it. We know these prejudices exist, because there are scientific studies about them. As iHeartRadio’s King Slime podcast points out, psychologists at the University of California conducted a study on this very subject in 2016, using the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”:

Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes 
And he went down, but to my surprise, 
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear. 
But I busted a chair right across his teeth 
And we crashed through the wall and into the street 
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

The researchers showed these lyrics to people who’d never heard the song before, without telling them what artist or genre they came from—and when they were asked, participants who believed they were looking at a rap song viewed the lines as both “more offensive” and “more literal and in need of greater regulation” than those who believed it to be a country song. In other words, people are predisposed to treat rap lyrics as literal statements of fact, when they wouldn’t assume that about any other kind of music.  

This result shouldn’t be surprising, since politicians and the media have been stirring up moral panics about rap since it emerged. Notoriously, former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback read lyrics from the late DMX on the Senate floor in 1999, and blamed rappers for “send[ing] the signal that violence is widespread and normal” in the wake of a school shooting in Arkansas. In 2001, New Orleans rapper Mac Phipps was wrongfully convicted of a murder someone else had confessed to, in a trial where his violent lyrics were taken out of context, misquoted, and used against him. It’s all part of the long, shameful history of racial injustice in the United States, and the YSL trial takes place against that backdrop. When lyrics like Young Thug’s or Yak Gotti’s are read out in court, they sound bad—especially to older, more conservative jurors, or those unfamiliar with the conventions of the musical form. They invoke old stereotypes. But that should have absolutely zero bearing on the serious question of whether or not these men committed any crimes. 

What’s more, the prosecution of musical artists for things they say in their music threatens everyone’s Constitutional right to free expression. If rappers can be sent to jail because of their lyrics, it casts a chilling shadow over the entire music industry. It could discourage artists from talking about violence and crime in their communities at all. That’s a big part of the reason Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Hank Johnson have introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection (R.A.P.) Act, which would place firm restrictions on the use of lyrics as evidence, in Congress. As Bowman put it in a recent Politico interview, rap and hip-hop are just the latest battleground in a broader fight against the policing of art:

It’s a culture that permeates every aspect of American life—and it’s free speech. There are so many young people who are finding their voice in this very complex, crazy world. And many of them find their voice through their art and through their singing, through their songwriting, through their rapping and emceeing. They need to know that they can say what’s on their heart and talk about what’s in their community, and even use personification, metaphor and language, which some may consider inappropriate in their expression.

Bowman has had an embarrassing few months recently, but he’s right on this. Free speech and expression are fundamental rights, and their erosion in one community endangers every other community. 

All of this, incidentally, has very little to do with Young Thug and his labelmates’ guilt or innocence. It may well be true that YSL is a gang, responsible for various killings, drug deals, and robberies; certainly the police seem to have found actual items of evidence, including an illegal machine gun, when they searched Williams’ house. But the case should live or die based on that real, material evidence, not lyrics. By introducing YSL rappers’ songs as evidence of their overall criminality, the prosecution has tainted its case, making it impossible for jurors to render a truly fair judgment. They’ve taken the lazy route, relying on stereotypes and insinuations rather than rigorous proof. Really, Judge Glanville should have known better than to allow it. As it stands, if these defendants are convicted in part due to their lyrics, there’s a strong case for appealing the verdict on First Amendment grounds—all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. 

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