Are rap lyrics really a “confession” to criminal acts committed by artists? That’s the position being presented by prosecutors across the country who have moved to have lyrics used as evidence against those who are being charged with crimes. But a growing number of legal minds are pushing to have the practice ended, citing the performances as being no different than any other creative work. Investigators just happen to use them as a crutch rather than gathering true evidence.
As lawyers and legal scholars note, there is no more indication that rap lyrics are based on true life incidents than there is that other songs, books or poems are anything but fiction unless otherwise noted. “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,’” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union, filing a brief in a New Jersey case involving murder suspect Vonte Skinner, where 13 pages of rap lyrics are being considered as evidence in his trial.
Why, then, is rap being singled out in a way that so many other art forms are not? Needless to say, there’s an undeniable racial undertone at play. “[T]here’s no question that black music has disproportionately suffered the scourge of literalism in a country that has so frequently and fearfully disavowed the complexities of both black people and black art,” writes Jack Hamilton at Slate. “… Racism is steeped in this sort of fear and also in ignorance so narcissistic that we project it onto others. Black music has often been taken literally because doing so confirmed fears among the kind of people who wanted their fears confirmed, and also because denying its figurativeness was a convenient way of denying its intellect.”
Being taken literally is a huge issue, especially when a person’s freedom is on the line. That’s the case in Newport News, where a suspect charged with a 2007 double murder is seeing rap lyrics used as a “confession” by the local police, despite the fact that the descriptions in the song don’t even bear that much resemblance to the facts in the incident itself. “[Lawyer Jimmy] Ellenson asserts there’s no link between the rap lyrics and the double killing. In part, he said the 2007 homicide involved only gunshots, not a stabbing with a shank as referenced in the song. Also, the [New York] Times further points out that the shell cases at the scene aren’t from a .357 Smith & Wesson,” reports Ashley Speed at the Daily Press. Ellenson also states that the lyrics appear to be the most substantial part of the prosecution’s case against his client, although there do appear to be witnesses involved in the case against him as well.
And, really, that’s exactly the point. If police investigators are truly doing their jobs, there should be a plethora of evidence to be used in a case, making rap lyrics unnecessary when it comes to prosecution. If there isn’t, how can a case be strong enough to find a suspect guilty in the first place? Why would lyrics even be necessary to introduce as evidence, especially if they can’t be verified as real depictions of events? According to Clay Calvert, the real intention is to taint a jury against the suspect. “When any example of rap is brought into the legal system because it allegedly is a threat, both it and its author face an uphill battle and start with a negative bias against them because rap, as a genre, carries with it the heavy baggage of negative controversy,” Calvert writes at the Huffington Post. In other words, they are entered into evidence not as a real confession, but as a form of character witness against the suspect him or herself.
Rap lyrics aren’t evidence. They are a form of jury tampering, and they should not be allowed.
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