Next month, the New Jersey Supreme Court will determine whether or not rap lyrics written by a defendant can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.
The case centers around Vonte Skinner, a man convicted by a jury in 2008 of the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson, and sentenced to thirty years in prison. During the trial, the prosecution was permitted to read thirteen pages of violent rap lyrics written by Skinner that were found in the backseat of his girlfriend’s car at the time of his arrest. While none of the lyrics relate to the crime he was on trial for, prosecutors argued that their depiction of gun violence and gore showed motive and intent on Skinner’s part. A court of appeals overturned the conviction in 2012, claiming there was no justification for the admission of the lyrics as evidence and that, without them, there was significant doubt that Skinner would have been convicted at all as the other evidence against him was mostly testimony from witnesses whose accounts had changed multiple times over the course of the trial.
What’s most shocking about Skinner’s case is that it is by no means unique. According to the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, eighteen cases around the United States have involved the prosecution asking to admit a defendant’s rap lyrics as evidence, and fourteen cases allowed the admission. That number may only be a fraction of the injustices committed as a result of a defendant’s rap lyrics.
A defendant’s rap lyrics have been used by prosecution in other judicial scenarios as well, according to Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond who studied rap lyrics and their effect on criminal proceedings in the paper Rap on Trial. Lyrics have been used in grand jury hearings, sentencing hearings, and may have even been used in unofficial and off-the-record cases as leverage to convince a defendant to take a plea. According to Nielson’s estimates, the number of times rap lyrics have been used in these different judicial scenarios may be upwards of a hundred.
The inclusion of lyrics as evidence is a problem that seems to be exclusive to rap music, as ACLU attorneys note in the amicus brief: “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 Dostoevsky with Raskolnikov’s motive or to indict Johnny Cash for having ‘shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’” Just the same, you likely wouldn’t see a situation where 2011’s indie breakthrough hit “Pumped Up Kicks” — a song literally about shooting peers and classmates in an act of revenge — would be allowed as evidence against the band’s front man, should he ever find himself in court. Nor did anyone find the Sublime song April 29, 1992 to be any sort of admission of guilt in the band’s members taking part in the Los Angeles riots.
So what makes rap different? It’s pretty clear: Race.
Some might argue that the genre of music carries less weight than the actual content of the lyrics — that lyrics of rap songs tend to be more problematic — but studies indicate something different. In 1996, researcher Carrie Fried carried out a study by presenting violent song lyrics to two groups. One was told they were from a rap song, the other told they were country lyrics. Fried found that those exposed to the rap version found it to be objectionable with some going so far as to recommend some sort of government regulation against them while those in the country group were “significantly less critical on all dimensions.”
Another study published by Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist at California State University, measured the impact of rap lyrics on juries by creating the case of a hypothetical teenage black male. Those shown violent and sexually explicit rap lyrics allegedly written by the hypothetical teenager were significantly more likely to believe he was capable of committing a murder as opposed to those who were shown no lyrics at all.
Even when music isn’t involved, studies show that racial bias is always at play in the court room. Black defendants are thirty percent more likely to be convicted than white defendants for the same crime. In 2013, convicted criminals whose crimes included minority victims were significantly less likely to receive the death penalty. Jurors’ implicit biases are always at play in trials, and it makes sense that bringing up a music genre so tightly tied to black culture might exacerbate this problem.
The fact that the First Amendment protection of rap lyrics is even being argued, coupled with the studies of what the public believes about what rap lyrics may represent, shows how our justice system fundamentally fails to understand rap and hip hop culture. Genres typically dominated by white artists are afforded the benefit of an artistic narrative license, an unspoken acknowledgement that even though these songs were written from a first person perspective, they of course have no grounding in reality and are just a story told through music which may or may not act as a form of social or political commentary. This is a benefit that rappers are often not afforded, especially as many critics of rap bemoan the genre’s glorification of violence and other often illicit subject matters at face value as opposed to believing the artist may be writing through a persona or guise of some sort in an attempt to start a conversation or even just to tell a story. It’s a cultural disconnect that not only limits one’s understanding of rap and hip hop, but has disproportionately harmed people of color and may continue to do so, depending on what New Jersey’s Supreme Court rules.
(HT: Mother Jones)
This post has been updated to clarify the comments of Erik Nielson.