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Prosecutors use defendants’ rap lyrics to win cases admitting the flimsiest evidence. Behind this rests a altered paranoia about hip hop and a continued history of criminalizing atramentous art. 



McKinley Phipps, built-in into a ancestors of artists and aloft in New Orleans’s Third Ward, consistently had a allowance for words. In 1990, at the age of thirteen, he arise his aboriginal rap album, The Agreeable Midget. The almanac not abandoned rode the ascent course of rap music beyond the country, but additionally adumbrated the acceleration of New Orleans as a hip hop mecca, acknowledgment in ample allotment to the success of No Limit Records, founded by rapper Master P. At its aiguille in the 1990s, No Limit was bearing albums at a boundless clip and was accretion its agenda to accommodate the cast of Mystikal and Snoop Dogg. In 1998 alone, No Limit arise 23 albums and awash about 15 actor copies.



While he never led a activity of crime, Mac was accomplished at bearing the gritty, about agitated lyrics that helped No Limit advertise records.

One of those albums, Shell Shocked, was by Phipps, now rapping as Mac. While he never led a activity of abomination himself, Mac was accomplished at bearing the gritty, about agitated lyrics that helped No Limit advertise records. As Mac acclaimed in a 2016 interview: “We’re in this to accomplish this money, and we’re agriculture a bazaar that demands this blazon of content. At the end of the day, I wasn’t walking about cutting bodies in absolute life. I wasn’t walking about affairs drugs to bodies in absolute life. . . . I fabricated the affectionate of music I fabricated because to me at that time it appeared to be the best advantageous route.”

By 1999 Master P fabricated Fortune’s “40 Richest Under 40” list, with an estimated net account of $361 million. He was aloof twenty-nine years old. When he bought a abode in Baton Rouge’s absolute Country Club of Louisiana, abutting to above Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, abounding saw the doubtful and alarming acceleration of a atramentous kid from the projects. But abounding others saw article different. They saw atramentous men accepting affluent off a anatomy of ball they advised an bribery to “traditional” values. And they saw a accumulation of atramentous men who weren’t abashed to alarm absorption to badge harassment, abuse, and corruption. One of Master P’s ancient songs, “Crooked Ass Law,” set the accent for consecutive songs from the No Limit label, which were sometimes aboveboard analytical of and aggressive adjoin the police. In “Runnin’ from the Police,” a song by C-Murder (Master P’s brother) and No Limit labelmate Mystikal, C-Murder raps, “Every time I see the boys in dejected / I wanna run and get the gun and alpha bustin’ for fun.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, No Limit artists about begin themselves the targets of badge surveillance and harassment. Aloof active a abbreviate ambit could be affront for a badge stop. In a contempo interview, Baton Rouge rapper Lil Boosie (who now raps as Boosie Badazz), additionally accepted for actuality analytical of the badge in his songs, batten to the way he and others were commonly singled out by police. One time, for example, badge pulled Boosie over, and afore absolution him go, they threw bags of dollars of his banknote beyond a freeway. Another time they took a knife to the upholstery in his car, aloof to accomplish a point.

On the night of February 20, 2000, Mac was assuming during an accessible mic night at Club Mercedes in Slidell, Louisiana, a babyish area about thirty afar alfresco of New Orleans. A action bankrupt out and a adolescent fan, Baron Victor, Jr., was attempt and dead in the melee. When he heard the gunshots, Mac initially fabricated his way to the aback aperture afore abiding central the club to accomplish abiding his parents, who were there accession money for the performance, were safe. He drew his own (legally registered) gun for protection, acceptation assemblage saw him with a gun in his hand, a actuality that authorities bedeviled on. They anon articular Mac as the primary doubtable and arrested him afterwards that evening.

During the trial, the prosecutor took pains to characterize Mac as the barbarous appearance in his songs.

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The afterwards action was a nightmare. Numerous assemblage at the arena declared a ballista who looked annihilation like Mac. The gun Mac was accustomed hadn’t been fired, and badge never recovered the weapon that had been. No added argumentative affirmation angry Mac to the crime. Another man alike went to badge and accepted to the shooting. Nevertheless, authorities answerable Mac—who had no bent record—with first-degree murder. At balloon they produced a cardinal of their own eyewitnesses, who acquire afterwards recanted their affidavit and said that prosecutors threatened to put them in bastille if they didn’t feel Mac as the shooter. One of them, a abundant woman called Yulon James, was told she could analyze Mac as the analgesic or acquire her babyish in prison.

During the trial, the prosecutor took pains to characterize Mac as the barbarous appearance in his songs, commendation abundantly from his 1998 album. “This actor who did this is the aforementioned actor whose bulletin is, ‘Murder murder, kill, kill, you fuck with me you get a ammo in your brain,’” the prosecutor said during his closing argument. “You don’t acquire to be a ability to bulk out that one additional one equals two.”

Mac was bedevilled of assassination and was bedevilled to thirty years in prison, a appellation he is still confined admitting mountains of affirmation that he was abominably convicted. He refuses to acquire acquittal because that would crave him to accept guilt.

‘The rap got his apperception all messed up. He was authoritative it big time with the gold chains and all that bits that went with it.’

Years afterwards the verdict, the board foreman accepted in an account that the lyrics presented to the board actually shaped his decision: “The music ability acquire been the problem. The rap got his apperception all messed up. He was active a activity that he anticipation he was a gangsta. He was authoritative it big time with the gold chains and all that bits that went with it. To shoot somebody in a accessible abode on the ball floor, you gotta anticipate you’re a bad son of a bitch.”

In a cogent postscript, in the years afterward Mac’s incarceration, both C-Murder (Master P’s brother) and Lil Boosie were additionally answerable with murder. In both cases, authorities used, or attempted to use, their lyrics adjoin them. Boosie was acquitted; C-Murder was not. He is confined a activity sentence, alike as the eyewitnesses adjoin him, as in Mac’s case, acquire recanted their testimony, claiming that police, who were aboveboard adverse to rap music, apprenticed them all along.

Stories like these are arena out all beyond the country: with alarming regularity, adolescent men are award themselves in handcuffs, in courtrooms, and about in bastille because of their rap lyrics. No added art form, agreeable or otherwise, is advised this way in court. Uses of rap lyrics by badge and prosecutors allotment the accepted acceptance that the lyrics are authentic reflections of the defendant’s thoughts, intentions, and actions. Rarely do authorities acknowledge—as they do with films, novels, and added agreeable genres—that there’s a acumen amid the columnist and the narrator cogent the story. Consider how that acceptance would comedy out with added forms of entertainment: abomination novelists, abolitionist poets, and screenwriters of abhorrence films would all be in agitation juries were assertive that their art was a absorption of their absolute lives.

Prosecutors should not be able to use rap in this way. Rap is an art anatomy that privileges allegorical accent and resides in a continued attitude of abstract rhetoric. It has little, if any, probative value. At the aforementioned time, abounding people—mainly white and earlier people—simply don’t like rap music, and for them the cast about invokes racist stereotypes about the inherent abomination of adolescent men of color. In a 1999 study, for example, participants were disconnected into two groups and again accustomed song lyrics that absolute depictions of abandon (they were from a folk song). Both groups were accustomed the exact aforementioned lyrics, but one accumulation was told that they came from a country song, while the added accumulation was told they came from a rap song. The accumulation that believed the lyrics were from a rap song rated them as added alarming and in allegation of adjustment than the accumulation that was told the lyrics were from a country song.

In a courtroom, application rap lyrics as affirmation allows prosecutors to actualize a anecdotal about the actor that is abundantly difficult to undo. Alike with a anemic case, they can win a conviction. Take the case of Vonte Skinner, a New Jersey biologic banker and ambitious rapper. In 2008 he was approved for the attempted annihilation of adolescent biologic banker Lamont Peterson. When Skinner was arrested, badge begin pages of his agitated rap lyrics in the backseat of his girlfriend’s car. During the trial, over again objections from the defense, the prosecutor was accustomed to apprehend to the board thirteen pages of Skinner’s lyrics, alike admitting all were composed afore the shooting—in abounding cases years before—and none of them mentioned the victim or absolute capacity about the crime. The tactic worked. Admitting an abundantly anemic case, the board begin Skinner accusable of attempted murder, and he was afterwards bedevilled to thirty years in prison. In 2012 Skinner’s confidence was chaotic by an appellate court, which disqualified that the lyrics never should acquire been accepted as affirmation in the aboriginal place. The majority wrote, “We acquire a cogent agnosticism about whether the jurors would acquire begin actor accusable if they had not been appropriate to accept to the continued account of these advancing and awful prejudicial lyrics.” In August 2014, the Supreme Cloister of New Jersey actually upheld the appellate court’s decision.

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Many accede to a appeal arrangement rather than face a board that ability accede them with the characters in their songs.

That’s a attenuate victory. In the all-inclusive majority of cases, rap lyrics are accepted as permissible evidence, and appeals are unsuccessful. The New Jersey ACLU, for instance, begin that in cases area assorted courts advised the accommodation of rap lyrics as evidence, they were accustomed about 80 percent of the time. Their abstracts assay came from a actual babyish sampling of cases, however. Our research, which has the account of a abundant beyond sample of cases, leads us to the cessation that the cardinal is decidedly higher. Appeals of bent aesthetics are bootless generally, and ambrosial the use of rap music as affirmation around never works.

Because it is such an able tactic for prosecutors—and because courts aren’t endlessly them—it makes faculty that added and added are application it. Over the aftermost decade in particular, we’ve apparent a affecting increase. There are a cardinal of affidavit for this expansion, including the role of agenda and amusing media, the academic agency that badge and prosecutors acquire anointed the practice, and changes in the acknowledged and political mural post-9/11. But one of the best annoying is that the basal checks and balances that abide in the bent balloon action to ensure that anybody is arena adequately arise to be missing here.

To be clear, while we are focused on the use of rap as affirmation in bent trials, it should additionally be accustomed that rap lyrics are commonly acclimated throughout the bent amends process. Badge are application rap lyrics to analyze and arrest suspects. Prosecutors are application them to allegation those suspects. Because the stakes are so aerial for the adolescent men bent up in this—and because rap lyrics accomplish for acceptable affirmation for jurors—many accede to a appeal arrangement rather than face a board that ability accede them with the characters in their songs.

 

• • •

Society has continued beheld atramentous art as a blackmail and angry to the bent amends arrangement to ascendancy atramentous accent and artistic endeavors.

Why is rap singled out? There’s no distinct explanation. But abounding of the factors accidental to rap on balloon are not new. Society has continued beheld atramentous art and announcement as a blackmail and angry to the bent amends arrangement to ascendancy atramentous accent and artistic endeavors. From bondservant boot and songs to Jim Crow–era ballads, in cabarets and juke joints, and during the civilian rights and atramentous nationalist eras, atramentous art and artists acquire consistently been criminally regulated. Modern rappers are bent up in this legacy, with the use of rap as affirmation apery the best accepted and, in some respects, acute appearance of this anatomy of amusing control.

They are additionally bent up in the state’s continued history of invoking ancestral epithets, narratives, and capacity in the courtroom. Prosecutors apperceive that they apparently can’t get abroad with application candidly racist accent anymore, but it doesn’t beggarly they’ve accustomed up on arena to the fears and stereotypes that such accent evokes. In a bent amends context—and in boilerplate discourse, for that matter—rap has continued been a proxy for atramentous (and sometimes Latino) adolescence culture. Like the chat “thug,” which is race-neutral on the apparent but is about consistently acclimated to accredit to atramentous men in debasing ways, rap offers badge and prosecutors a acceptable way to allocution about adolescent men of blush while invoking ancestral stereotypes that would contrarily be unacceptable.

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And board are absolution them do it, admitting actuality answerable with ensuring that affirmation doesn’t actualize arbitrary prejudice. They artlessly aren’t analytical the affirmation for bent or ensuring that badge experts are appropriately able to affirm about rap lyrics (which they about never are). Board additionally abstain austere application of whether Aboriginal Amendment built-in protections should accumulate agreeable affirmation out of court.

In short, this convenance happens because it works, few are acquainted it’s happening, and alike beneath are arduous it. And it’s growing—not abandoned because it is able and almost hidden from accessible view, but additionally because of the affluence with which badge and prosecutors can now acquisition the evidence. Affecting transitions in music format, artisan and fan accessibility, and artisan advantage acquire afflicted how badge and prosecutors acquisition and use rap lyrics. Over time, options for music burning acquire acquired from alive performances to concrete copies to agenda formats. Rap affirmation has analogously transitioned. When this affair originally access assimilate the scene, prosecutors primarily formed with concrete evidence, such as defendant-artists’ handwritten lyrics in notebooks or recordings on cassette tape, CD, or DVD. Today, the majority of music is captivated via downloading or alive from the Internet. Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Snapchat, SoundCloud—all of these agenda platforms serve as sources for badge and prosecutors to acquisition rap evidence.

Another change that has occurred over the years is the music industry’s amplification from acceptable almanac labels to accommodate absolute Internet assembly and administration platforms. There is no allegation to delay for a almanac accord or music abject to accretion exposure. Artists big and babyish can anon and calmly affix with the accessible by activity anon to bazaar through YouTube, Facebook, and SoundCloud. And the artisan who develops a ample fan base, alike if still alien on a civic level, can again advantage that acceptance into added advantageous endeavors such as licensing, sponsorships, cast partnerships, alive shows, touring, and festivals. Not abandoned is the industry advantageous attention, but so are badge and prosecutors.

To allure ambitious allies to the account of endlessly the use of rap as evidence, it is appetizing to anatomy the altercation in agreement of a glace slope: bodies ability not affliction about rap music or alike like it, but they should still be afraid because already we alpha attached assertive types of speech, we accessible the aperture to attached added kinds of speech. An altercation like this is appetizing accustomed the allegation to animate abutment amid a assorted accumulation of people, which can about be accomplished by relying on their aggregate vulnerabilities.

Rap on balloon is not a Aboriginal Amendment affair with ancestral implications, it’s a ancestral affair with Aboriginal Amendment implications.

The botheration is that over the aftermost thirty years, alike as the use of rap as affirmation has exploded, we acquire apparent actually no edge into added art forms. In added words, if you try to alarm bodies into annoying that country music, with its own history of agitated lyrics and agitated artists, may anon be targeted the way rap is, they will acquaint you that’s absurd, and they would be right. The aforementioned goes for abhorrence movies or abomination novels. The acumen should be obvious. Those are primarily white forms of entertainment, which agency they are added or beneath allowed to the affectionate of administrative attacks that rap music, and the bodies who actualize it, abide routinely.

Therefore, a acknowledged alarm to accoutrements charge by call be an authentic one: rap on balloon is not a Aboriginal Amendment affair with ancestral implications, it’s a ancestral affair with Aboriginal Amendment implications. That’s not aloof a semantic distinction. We see rap on balloon as both a window into the broader ancestral inequalities that comedy out in our bent acknowledged arrangement and a blow of those inequalities. We don’t appetite to abbreviate the accent of chargeless announcement or the allegation to assure it; we aloof appetite to be bright that we accept rap is actuality acclimated to abuse the bodies of blush who aftermath it. In our view, allusive change will appear abandoned if we aboriginal accede this basal reality.

 

Copyright © 2019 by Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis. This extract originally appeared in Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Answerability in America, appear by The New Press. Reprinted actuality with permission.

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