Legions of angry parents were already up in arms when gangster rap arrived on the scene. After the 1985 PMRC Senate hearings helped institute “Parental Advisory” stickers, albums by Ice-T and N.W.A. were among the first to be branded. Since then, rap as a musical form has continued to take its lumps for what concerned onlookers deem questionable content. Many rappers, though frustrated with the America in which they had grown up, sought refuge in one of the most fundamentally American ideals: free speech–an issue apparently unresolved, because 25 years later, rap lyrics are being used as evidence in criminal trials, and the New Jersey Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the issue.
The New York Times released a piece on the murder trial of Vonte Skinner, which featured, along with eyewitness accounts, 13 pages of rap lyrics that neither referenced the victim nor the details of the crime. Instead, the lyrics were used to establish the defendant’s character. Skinner was initially convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison before that ruling was overturned by an appellate court which stated that the lyrics should not have been admissible. Now, the state has appealed that ruling, and the New Jersey Supreme Court is set to decide whether the lyrics should be allowed.
Putting the legal argument aside, it doesn’t seem like lyrics would be very compelling in a system supposedly concerned with the facts, but it’s no secret that facts and final impressions don’t always get along. In a genre where it is almost assumed by seasoned hip-hop listeners that at least a quarter of what your average keepin’-it-real rappers says is complete bullshit, to have these words play a major role in determining the innocence of the author would be comical if it weren’t actually happening.
Defenders of rap compare it to other audacious artistic statements, like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, an account of several gruesome murders in the first-person narrative. But while it is understood that Ellis’s job to inhabit foreign personas, it is understood within rap, and thus more tenuously by the outside world, that a degree of what a rapper brings is authenticity, coupled with more fantastic stories than the next guy. The problem is that while these tall tales are like Santa Claus to people who listen to rap, they are offer a domino effect to people who don’t.
Obviously, as rappers like Eminem, Nicki Minaj and Tyler, the Creator demonstrate, what you see or hear is not always what you get. If Eminem were somehow accused of a serial killing spree, and the prosecution played “3 A.M.” and the rest of his colorful catalog to the jury, the jury might think they’re getting Marshall Mathers, as a whole, when they’re actually getting Slim Shady at a specific time, in a specific place, after eating a specific food. To recontextualize any form of artistic expression in order to assassinate the character of an artist is not only not reliable, it’s irresponsible.
That said, there are other cases where lyrics may play a more specific role in prosecution: A 2011 trial featured two aspiring rappers who allegedly stabbed and killed another man. They had written poems and songs specifically about that incident. There are also instances of police departments using music and videos to gain information about gangs.The constitution protects speech from congress; it does not protect you from your words.
Immoral activity should stain a person’s character, not the artistic reflection thereof. There is a story behind every murderer, but there is not a murderer behind every story.