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Rap Music on Trial: My interview with Charis Kubrin

I met Professor Charis Kubrin at a candidate forum where her husband, Kev Abazajian, among other candidates running for Irvine City Council, answered live questions about positions on certain issues of importance to Irvine, California. Irvine, as many of you don’t know, is a cookie-cutter city in Orange County that is considered one of the safest places to live in the United States. Houses look the same, lawns must be mowed, and you talk to your neighbors. I was also raised in Irvine—and given the current political climate, have recently begun taking interest on who exactly was running for its city council. This interest somehow led me to meeting Charis Kubrin. Although her husband took a stance on issues I hold dearly to my heart, like climate change, I was silently fangirling over his wife, who my friend Ben Leffel (more on him another time) showed me her TEDx video about on rap lyrics used as evidence in criminal proceedings.


To give you the tl;dr, I nagged at Ben to introduce me to Charis, and proceeded to nervously bombard her to discuss her TED Talk. We ended up briefly discussing the dreadful-hair-pulling-why-am-I-reading-this comment section on Youtube/Instagram, and how education, research, and logic tend to be overlooked when you place yourself on a platform.


I was lucky enough to conduct a via emall interview on the topic of her TEDx talk. Rather than treat rap music as an art form with the primary purpose to entertain audiences, prosecutors have been able to convince judges and juries that lyrics are either autobiographical confessions of illegal behavior or even used as evidence for an alleged crime. That is, of course, if you’re a black male.


All this was in reference to Olutosin Oduwole, an aspiring rapper attending Southern Illinois University, who Kubrin defended as an expert witness in a court case against 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.


This is where Kubrin comes in. Professor Kubrin did massive amounts of research—to the point where we can now call her a rap music scholar, 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 5 years with an attempt to make a terrorist attack.


Aahoo: 1) You put so much research and effort into the case—but Olutosin Oduwole was still found guilty. What happened after, and given what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently in the court room to convince the jury of your detailed research?


Charis Kubrin: Looking back from where I am now, I see I was so naive. The Oduwole case was my introduction to "rap on trial" and the first time I served as an expert witness in a criminal case. It was a nerve wracking experience for so many reasons. As I admit in my TEDx talk, at first I had my suspicions about the case and what happened. But the more I dove into the evidence, the more certain I became that it was all just "a big misunderstanding," something I could convince the jury to see. Of course I was dead wrong, as Oduwole was convicted. I was disheartened about the outcome but what I didn't know then is that this wouldn't be the last "rap on trial" case I would be involved in. In the years that followed, more and more of these cases started popping up across the country. Since Oduwole's case, I've testified in half a dozen cases and have been a consultant on a couple dozen more. Most defendants are found guilty and sent off to prison. I was continually asking myself, what is going on here? Why is this happening? Seeking answers to these questions, I started doing research. A series of experimental studies conducted with my former PhD student Adam Dunbar reveals people hold strong biases and stereotypes against rap music and the artists who make it. Adam and I continue to research how stereotyping and bias related to rap music may impact decision-making in criminal cases. As I've said many times, 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. Interestingly, after spending years in prison, Oduwole's conviction was overturned and he was set free. But his case is the exception not the rule.


Aahoo: In your TED talk, you mentioned emotions trump logic in the court room--that arguments were more persuasive than evidence. Did you have a feeling trump would win the 2016 election based on how he was running his campaign?


CK: And I still believe this. In fact, I may believe it even more since Trump took office. Of course this doesn't mean that you do away with logic or discard facts. Can you imagine this world if that were the case? It just means that logic and facts alone are not enough. This is something I am realizing more and more as I go through my career and attempt to share my research findings beyond academia--including with folks who disagree strongly with what my research finds. As academics, we are trained to be objective and scientific, to use facts--and facts alone--to make our case, and above all, to not show emotion. And we certainly aren't encouraged to reveal our vulnerabilities to others. Too often it seems the information is expected to flow in one direction--from academics to everyone else, with little consideration for what others may know, have experienced and believe. I am now convinced this approach is not effective, especially in today's world where there is deep division and disagreement. Pounding people over the head with facts will only get you so far. If there is no attempt to listen, to have information flow in both directions, and to really try and connect with others, as academics we will make little impact. At the same time, this means we open ourselves up to others who may disagree and challenge what we have to say, including in ways that we may see as counterproductive (check out the comments on my TEDx talk to know exactly what I am talking about). But here the old adage "sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" really applies. One can't take this stuff personally. When I take criticism personally, even when it's directly aimed at me, I lose. I lose because I make the story about me, NOT THE RESEARCH. But the research is the Star. In fact, the research is my North Star keeping me on track when I get lost. At the end of the day, I'm not here to convert anyone or better yet prove my rightness. But I am here to be the messenger of the research and to let the research speak for itself. I no longer need to defend it. I just need to continue to share it so if one person in the room receives the information and has learned something from it, I've done my job!


Aahoo: I read Mukasa Mubirumusoke’s NaS, Nietzsche, and the Moral Prejudices of Truth, where he discusses Nietzsche’s critique of truth to argue that traditional interpretations of Gangsta rap is to perpetuate anti-black racial sentiments. As a professor of Criminology, Law & Society, you’ve conducted so much research on race and violence, immigration and crime. I wanted to discuss how the verdict would have been different if Oduwole was white, and the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.


CK: Great question. Obviously race plays into it all. I mean the very fact that defendant-authored lyrics are showing up in criminal cases ONLY for the genre of rap music is extremely telling. This is not happening for aspiring artists who make rock, heavy metal, punk or country music--despite the fact that, more often than not, their lyrics also contain plenty of depictions of crime and violence (and this says nothing of the other genres of artistic expression where violence is also extremely common). In the vast majority of rap on trial cases, the defendant is a young man of color residing in a disadvantaged community. This reveals that while race is salient, it is only part of the equation--gender, socio-economic status, age and other characteristics also matter. It's a constellation of factors really, what we refer to as intersectionality. At first I was consumed with trying to pull apart all of these factors to see what role race, in particular, plays in rap on trial cases but I have since abandoned that approach, recognizing that it's all of these things. What I do know from my research and experience with these cases is that by the prosecution playing with the jury's preconceived notions about rap music, they also tap into race and the other characteristics, which reinforces old and new stereotypes about young men of color from inner-city neighborhoods as inherently threatening and dangerous.


Aahoo: And now for a resolution—I think education on topics as mentioned is a start to end racial disparities in a criminal justice system, but what about the men and woman assuming powerful positions in law enforcement agencies or the court system? Is there a certain education you believe they’re missing? And for a more broad question: if we want to fix the problem, where do we start, as students, to assist in ending this pre-existing attitude of the court system?


CK: So, in fact, I believe there is much room for education of police and courtroom players in the context of rap on trial cases. This is a great place to start. For many folks involved in these cases, they don't know much--if anything--about rap music and frequently make claims about the genre that are, quite simply, false. The most common error is claiming that rap lyrics are nothing more than autobiographical statements, confessions to crimes or impending threats. That is, rap is denied the status of art. But rap IS a form of artistic expression, even if it's not to your liking. Regardless of how it is viewed, rap is responsible for more musical innovation than the British Invasion of the 1960s, led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and the rise of rap has been dubbed the single most important event in popular music during the last 50 years (http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/5/150081). Given rap's narrative form and genre conventions--especially the notion of keepin' it real--understandably there may be some confusion about the genre, especially among non-listeners. This is where experts can make a real difference. For example, by educating judges about the genre and its conventions along with explaining the biases and stereotyping we documented in our research, judges may make more informed decisions about when to (and not to) allow the lyrics as evidence. Of course education of this sort, while useful, is merely a band aid on a much larger problem that we as a society face--as the ending of my TEDx talk alludes to.


For anyone interested in learning about Oduwole’s case, Charis directed me to an NPR ‘Hidden Brain’ Segment, where they interviewed everyone involved:

NPR’s Hidden Brain Segment


Another great PDF read by Carrie B. Fried: Bias in Reactions to Music Lyrics

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