The Murder Case Against Michael Dunn Isn’t The Only Place Where Hip-Hop Is On Trial


“To me, it was unnecessary,” Valerie, one of the jurors in the trial of Michael Dunn, a software developer who shot and killed a Florida teenager, Jordan Davis, after confronting Davis and his friends about the volume of the music the boys were playing in their car, told ABC News this morning. Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted second degree murder for shooting at Dunn’s friends, and the judge in the case declared a mistrial when the jurors were unable to agree on a first degree murder charge.

Valerie says that she wanted to explain that outcome, because she believed the confrontation between Dunn and the teenagers, which lead to the exchange in which Dunn said he believed he saw Davis with a gun and that he was about to be killed, had been unnecessary.

“We all believed there was another way out, another option,” Valerie said. “Roll your window up. Ignore the taunting. Put your car in reverse. Back up to the front of the store. Move a parking spot over. That’s my feeling.”

I imagine many of us agree. What makes Jordan Davis’ death distinct, though, is that it’s part of a shift in our conversation and in the courts that treats hip-hop music as distinct from other aural irritants, as proof that the people who play it or make it are threatening, or even as a danger in and of itself.

My editor, Judd Legum, has written that it trivializes Jordan Davis’ death to call the trial of the man who killed him the “loud music trial.” That isn’t all the trial was about. And it does obscure Jordan Davis’ personhood to hide him behind a wall of sound. But music was at issue in the courtroom where Michael Dunn was tried, and in the jurors’ deliberations.

On the stand, Dunn describes the music that irritated him so much as causing him at least a low level of physical harm. “My eardrums were vibrating,” he said in response to questioning. “I mean, this was ridiculously loud music.” And Valerie said that one of the reasons she believed Dunn was guilty of murder was because of the way he attributed violent tendencies to people who listened to a particular genre of music.

“That was a big deal for me, because he testified he wouldn’t say or use the words ‘thug,’ but he said he would use the words ‘rap crap.’ However, in his interview, he did say ‘thug’ a few times,” Valerie said. The fact that Jordan Davis and his friends were listening to hip-hop, specifically to Lil Reese’s “Beef,” seems to have predisposed Dunn to look at the boys in the car as dangerous in a way he might not have had they happened to be bumping country, or dance music, or the Rolling Stones.

Dunn is hardly the only person to assert a connection between listening to hip-hop and committing real-world violence. And that argument isn’t limited to the defense table in courtrooms, either.

In January, professors Erik Nielson and Charis Kubrin wrote in the New York Times about the growing trend of prosecutors presenting hip-hop lyrics as evidence in criminal trials, treating the genre as if it functions in ways that are wholly distinct from other kinds of music.

“As expert witnesses who have testified in such cases, we have observed firsthand how prosecutors misrepresent rap music to judges and juries, who rarely understand the genre conventions of gangsta rap or the industry forces that drive aspiring rappers to adopt this style,” they explained. “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.”

In March, the New Jersey Supreme Court will consider the case of Vonte Skinner, who was convicted of a 2005 shooting in part on the supposed evidence present in his lyrics. If the New Jersey Supreme Court overturns an appeal’s court’s ruling that Skinner’s lyrics weren’t admissible, they’ll provide further intellectual backing to people like Michael Dunn who believe that hip-hop is evidence of dangerousness, or even that the music itself is harmful. That doesn’t just downgrade hip-hop, a hugely influential genre, from an art form to something more pedestrian. It justifies action against the music, and the people who make and play it.