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Rap Music on Trial: Art or Confession?

Melissa Lynne Watt and Raika Casey

Rap Music on Trial: Art or Confession?
Tempura via iStock

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On May 9, 2022, rappers Young Thug and Gunna were among 28 defendants charged with conspiracy and street gang activity under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The evidence against them? Their rap lyrics.

The Indictment

In a 56-count, 88-page grand jury indictment, prosecutors cited details from Young Thug and Gunna’s music videos and lyrics as evidence of their alleged guilt and association with the Bloods-affiliated gang—Young Slime Life or YSL. Specifically, as “overt evidence of conspiracy,” the indictment highlights lyrics such as “I killed his man in front of his momma,” “For slimes you know I kill, trial, I done beat it twice, state, I’m undefeated like feds came and snatched me,” and “cooking white brick,” among others.

To bring a RICO charge, prosecutors need to show the various individual actions contributing to the overall criminal conspiracy. The indictment laid out numerous overt acts allegedly committed by the various YSL members, including murder, carjacking, armed robbery, drug dealing, illegal firearm possession, and other crimes. However, at least five of the acts were purely lyrics from songs.

Art or Confession?

The use of rappers’ own music against them in court has been slammed by First Amendment advocates as unconstitutional. Art, such as musical expression, is a protected form of free speech. Rap’s artistry is “rooted in a long tradition of storytelling that privileges figurative language, hyperbole, and poetry,” says Jay-Z’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, and Erik Nielson, co-author of the book Rap on Trial. Accordingly, rap lyrics are not necessarily a reflection of reality. For Young Thug, the prosecutors assert that the rapper’s lyrics are not protected as pure artistic expression because they prove his involvement in criminal activity. This idea—that prosecutors can equate rap lyrics with confessions—could have a devastatingly chilling effect.

Rap Culture

This is not a novel move by prosecutors. For example, in 2016, rapper Tay K was convicted of murder, using a music video as evidence. Rapper Vonte Skinner’s lyrics were used in his attempted murder trial. That conviction, however, was overturned when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the jury would not have found him guilty if they were not made to listen to his lyrics. Perhaps most infamously, rapper Drakeo the Ruler spent three years in prison while prosecutors tried to build a case against him for the 2016 murder of a man outside a party. Prosecutors introduced lyrics from his 2016 song, “Flex Freestyle,” to convince jurors that the rapper brought armed associates to the party to target another rapper. As it turned out, the other rapper was not even at the party where the fatal shooting occurred. He was eventually acquitted.

Using rap lyrics as evidence of criminal activity is also not so much a tactic as it is a convenient shortcut. Rap lyrics carry an embedded culture that is not necessarily accessible to juries. Specifically, rap culture normalizes boasting, metaphor, collective knowledge, narrative, and role play. Prosecutors have seized on this disconnect and exploited it, tapping into existing biases toward rappers to win convictions where the evidence outside of the lyrics is unconvincing. Rather than a type of artistic expression, prosecutors have argued that rap lyrics should be interpreted literally as autobiographical journals and therefore as inculpatory statements or confessions.

However, there has been a movement to prohibit this shortcut. Last year, two New York senators introduced legislation named Rap Music on Trial that, according to a joint news release, would ban “the use of art created by a defendant as evidence against them in a courtroom” to protect artists from “having their lyrics wielded against them by prosecutors.” For now, artists may still be at risk of the weaponization of their art.