Prosecutors are increasingly – and misleadingly – using rap lyrics as evidence in court


Rapper Darrell Caldwell, higher identified to followers as Drakeo the Ruler, was on his solution to stardom. Hailed as one of the unique rappers to emerge from Los Angeles in a era, he had garnered lots of of 1000’s of followers on Instagram, tens of tens of millions of views on YouTube and the eye of media retailers like SPIN, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.

Now he’s on trial for his life, and prosecutors are planning on doing what they’ve performed to lots of of different accused hip-hop artists: Use his personal lyrics as proof towards him.

Because my analysis facilities on African American literary and musical traditions – with a selected emphasis on hip-hop tradition – I used to be requested by the protection to testify as an knowledgeable witness in Drakeo’s first trial.

This is figure I’m known as to do fairly commonly. My greatest guess is that I’ve consulted on over 60 instances wherein prosecutors have used rap lyrics or movies as proof of guilt. In addition, my analysis with University of Georgia legislation professor Andrea Dennis has uncovered greater than 500 cases wherein prosecutors have used this technique, a quantity we’re sure is simply the tip of the iceberg.

As an knowledgeable witness, my job is to right the prosecutors’ characterizations of rap music. They routinely ignore the truth that rap is a type of creative expression – with stage names, an emphasis on figurative language and hyperbolic rhetoric – and as a substitute current rap as autobiographical.

In impact, they ask jurors to droop the excellence between writer and narrator, actuality and fiction, and to learn rap lyrics as literal confessions of guilt.

No different artwork kind is exploited like this in court docket. And but it’s an efficient technique exactly as a result of it faucets into stereotypes about rap music and the younger males of colour who’re its main creators.

Lyrics on trial

To recap Drakeo’s authorized drama: Last 12 months, he was charged and tried in reference to a capturing at a celebration that resulted within the demise of a 24-year-old man named Davion Gregory.

According to prosecutors, the capturing was botched. Drakeo, they claimed, had ordered the shooter to kill a unique particular person – a musical rival who raps as RJ.

Their proof was flimsy. RJ wasn’t even on the occasion, and there’s no proof he and Drakeo ever had violent confrontations. In reality, RJ has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t consider he was ever focused by Drakeo. One of the district lawyer’s personal witnesses additionally stated Drakeo didn’t know the capturing was going to occur.

So to bolster their case, prosecutors centered on Drakeo’s music. At one level, for instance, they cited a line from his music “Flex Freestyle,” wherein he raps, “I’m ridin’ round town with a Tommy gun and a Jag / And you can disregard the yelling, RJ tied up in the back.”

The line was fictional; no person claims that RJ was ever tied up behind Drakeo’s automotive. Nevertheless, prosecutors needed the jury to consider that the lyrics have been precise reflections of Caldwell’s need to hurt an trade rival.

Despite the prosecution’s efforts to make use of Drakeo’s music towards him, it didn’t work: In July 2019, the jury acquitted Drakeo of most counts, together with the a number of counts of homicide.

Nonetheless, prosecutors are taking the bizarre step of retrying Drakeo on a cost on which the jury deadlocked the primary time round: felony gang conspiracy.

If convicted, he faces life in jail.

He didn’t Doo it

For years, police departments throughout the nation have surveilled and harassed rap artists; even right now, they routinely deny these artists entry to efficiency venues, arguing they’re a risk to public security.

Meanwhile, the usage of rap lyrics as proof has exploded.

In 2014, as an illustration, San Diego prosecutors charged Brandon Duncan, who raps as Tiny Doo, with felony gang conspiracy in reference to a collection of shootings that happened in San Diego in 2013 and 2014. Nobody argued that Duncan participated in and even knew in regards to the shootings. Nor was he in a gang.

But citing the identical legislation now getting used towards Drakeo, prosecutors stated his violent rap lyrics promoted gang violence – and that Duncan benefited from that violence within the type of enhanced “street cred.” So for crimes that everybody agrees Duncan didn’t commit or find out about, prosecutors sought to place him away for 25 years to life. He sat in jail for greater than seven months earlier than a decide lastly threw out the costs towards him. Duncan later filed a lawsuit for wrongful arrest within the case, and simply final month he settled with town of San Diego for over US$700,000.

Duncan was much more lucky than most younger males who’ve their lyrics weaponized towards them in court docket. The overwhelming majority of the instances we’ve discovered finish in conviction, usually with prolonged sentences.

To spotlight only a few of the latest instances I’ve testified in: There was Victor Hernandez, sentenced to life in jail for homicide in Arizona; Christopher Bassett, sentenced to life plus 35 years for homicide in Tennessee; and Ronnie Fuston, sentenced to demise for homicide in Oklahoma.

The query shouldn’t be whether or not these younger males dedicated the crimes they have been convicted of. The query is whether or not they acquired a good trial from an unbiased jury. When rap lyrics are launched as proof, that turns into extremely doubtful.

There’s a rhyme and a motive

Introducing rap lyrics will be extremely efficient for prosecutors as a result of it permits them to attract on stereotypes about younger black and Latino males as violent, hypersexual and harmful. In entrance of a jury, that may foment prejudice.

Not solely have I seen this firsthand, however there’s additionally empirical proof that reveals simply how prejudicial rap lyrics will be. For instance, within the late 1990s, psychologist Stuart Fischoff carried out a examine to measure the impact of express rap lyrics on juries.

Participants got fundamental biographical details about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, however just some have been proven a set of his violent, sexually express rap lyrics. Those who learn the lyrics have been considerably extra more likely to consider the person was able to committing a homicide than those that didn’t.

In a examine carried out by social psychologist Carrie Fried, contributors got a set of violent lyrics with none indication of the artist or musical style. In actuality they have been from the 1960 music “Bad Man’s Blunder” by the folks group Kingston Trio. Researchers informed one group of contributors that the lyrics have been from a rustic music, and informed the opposite group that they got here from a rap music. In the tip, contributors who believed the lyrics got here from a rap music have been considerably extra more likely to view them as harmful, offensive and in want of regulation. It’s value noting that Fried’s examine was replicated in 2016, with related findings.

These research – and others – spotlight the enduring racial stereotypes that inform individuals’s perceptions of rap music. They additionally assist clarify an apparent double customary at work, one which the Supreme Court of New Jersey laid naked in a 2014 opinion that denounced the usage of rap lyrics as proof:

“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell–Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”

Unfortunately, nonetheless, they do obtain completely different therapy, whilst rap has emerged as one of many world’s hottest and influential genres.

It has additionally grown right into a multi-billion-dollar trade, one that provides an opportunity at upward mobility, significantly in communities the place such alternatives are desperately laborious to come back by.

Criminalizing it’s merciless, unjust and silences a few of the individuals most in want of a voice.

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