Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Incriminating Rhymes: Rap Lyrics as Criminal Evidence

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

gavelAntwain Steward, a.k.a. Twain Gotti, is a young rapper from Virginia whose trial for murder and related charges recently resulted in a conviction. The case was newsworthy not for the crime or for the result, but rather for the way in which Mr. Steward’s own music was used as evidence against him. Seeing the verdict, I was reminded of a New York Times article from March of this year about Mr. Steward and others who, like him, face the harsh legal consequences of their boastful and profane song lyrics.

Times journalist Lorne Manly explains the budding trend:

 Today, [Steward’s] case is one of more than three dozen prosecutions in the past two years in which rap lyrics have played prominent roles. The proliferation of cases has alarmed many scholars and defense lawyers, who say that independent of a defendant’s guilt or innocence, the lyrics are being unfairly used to prejudice judges and juries who have little understanding that, for all its glorification of violence, gangsta rappers are often people who have assumed over-the-top and fictional personas.

Prosecutors note that rap lyrics can be a source of useful information because gang-involved rappers seek to gain notoriety based on their criminal acts, and record their boasts for public consumption. As Manly notes, however, this approach has its critics:

 Those who oppose the use of the lyrics say prosecutors have singled out rap as a literal evocation of reality when the lyrics in other musical genres have long been acknowledged as fictional.

One of the few criminal cases in which other kinds of artistic work played a role unfolded nearly three decades ago in Washington, where prosecutors introduced a piece of crime fiction in an assault case to show the author had a violent streak. The conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which said it rejected ‘the proposition that an author’s character can be determined by the type of book he writes.’

A brief filed…by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union turns to ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ to make a similar point. ‘That a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to saddle Dostoyevsky with Raskolnikov’s motives or to indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’’

Is rap music reflective of the artists’ reality to such an extent that a rapper’s lyrics can be taken literally? Or should we reject the notion that his words and his deeds are one in the same?

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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