The American Justice and Legal System has a combative relationship with rap music. Rather than seeing lyrics as an art form with the primary purpose to entertain audiences, prosecutors have been able to convince judges and juries that lyrics are autobiographical confessions of illegal behavior. Lyrics are used as evidence of an alleged crime, creating a fear that the artistic expression will become literal and threatening. The legal system has gone to the extent of censoring, regulating, and arresting artists for lewd and profane performances.
But only if you’re a black male, of course.
In October, I interviewed criminologist Charis Kubrin, a Professor of Law, Criminology, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. She served as an expert witness in criminal cases involving rap music as evidence of alleged criminal activity, and gave a TEDx talk on The Threatening Nature of…Rap Music. Given that the American Justice System has a lot of shameful moments, I felt like the topic needed to be discussed on IGTV.
Let’s start with Olutosin Oduwole. It’s 2007 and Olutosin Oduwole is an aspiring rapper attending Southern Illinois University. He gets a knock on his door, and opens it to the police, ready to arrest him. The reason? Six lines of texts: lyrics rapping about committing a Virginia Tech style mass shooting. Oduwole had no prior convictions, and adamantly denied he was planning acts of violence.
Glock to the head of
send $2 to …. paypal account
if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in the next
7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the
VT shooting will occur at another
highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A
Kubrin defended Oduwole as an expert witness in his court case, reviewing hundreds of pages from Oduwole’s notebooks with rap lyrics, school notes, and a letter to a girl. The compiled evidence confirmed that Oduwole was not a terrorist, but actually feared terrorism and being misinterpreted.
Olutosin Oduwole was found guilty and sent to prison for five years with an attempt to make a terrorist attack. His conviction was overturned after a few years, and he was set free. More and more of these ‘Rap on Trial’ cases began popping up across America, where Kubrin testified in half a dozen and consulted on a couple dozen more.
Most defendants are found guilty and sent to prison, and research from Kubrin’s former Ph.D student, Adam Dunbar, reveals people hold strong biases and stereotypes against rap music and the artists who write them. These biases related to rap music impacts decision-making in criminal cases.
In my interview with Kubrin, she stated that “putting rap on trial has significant implications for how we define creative expression as well as for free speech and the right of all Americans to receive a fair trial”.
In Mukasa Mubirumusoke’s NaS, Nietzsche, and the Moral Prejudices of Truth, he discusses Nietzsche’s critique of truth to argue that traditional interpretations of Gangsta Rap is to perpetuate anti-black racial sentiments. The verdict would have been different if Oduwole was white, and there are clear racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Defendant-authored lyrics are showing up in criminal cases ONLY for the genre of rap music, which, as Kubrin agrees, is extremely telling. Aspiring artists who make rock, punk, or country music have, more often than not, plenty of depictions of crime and violence. Kubrin stated that the vast majority of rap on trial cases, the defendant is a young man of color residing in a disadvantaged community. Gender, socio-economic status, age and other characteristics also matter. Kubrin described it as a constellation of factors referred to as intersectionality.
Kubrin’s research and experience with these cases really shows that by the prosecution playing with the jury's preconceived notions about rap music, they also tap into race and the other characteristics, reinforcing old and new stereotypes about young men of color from inner-city neighborhoods as inherently threatening and dangerous.
There was actually an experiment that examined the impact of genre-specific stereotypes of violent song lyrics, where the same lyrics were given to two groups of people, one group was told it was a rap song and another was told it’s from a country song. It found that participants deemed identical lyrics more literal, offensive, and in greater need of regulation when they were characterized as rap compared with country. In other words, those who were told the lyrics were from a rap song perceived them to be more negative overall compared with those who were told the lyrics were from a country song.
So you will probably never see an aspiring country artist go to trial for writing lyrics.
I do believe that education on topics is a start to end racial disparities in a criminal justice system, but there are men and woman assuming powerful positions in law enforcement agencies who are well educated, but they also hold a bias unbeknownst to them.
Regardless of how rap is viewed, it’s responsible for more musical innovation than the British Invasion in the 1960’s, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It’s the single most important popular music during the last 50 years, but somehow denied the status of art. Rap music is a form of artistic expression, even if it’s not to your liking.
I won’t listen to country music (unless it’s about taking a horse to the Old Town Road and riddeee till you can’t no more, or if it’s a Love Story baby just say yes), but does that mean I’m going to proclaim it’s not an art form? No! I personally just don’t like it.
It’s unfortunate that we need experts to educate judges about the rap genre, while also explaining its biases and stereotypes. I mean Cocaine Blues by Johnny Cash has the lyrics “I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down”, and no one has to explain why those lyrics aren’t literal.
I guess even US judges need some handholding here and there.
For anyone interested in learning about Oduwole’s case, Kubrin directed me to an NPR ‘Hidden Brain’ Segment, where they interviewed everyone involved:
Another great PDF read by Carrie B. Fried: Bias in Reactions to Music Lyrics`