Rap Music as Evidence: The Latest Phase of Anti-Rap Discrimination

Rap Music as Evidence: The Latest Phase of Anti-Rap Discrimination

September 19th was an active day on Twitter. The meme getting the most traffic was of Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, who was on his third day of testifying in court.

His long-awaited testimony was comprised of him identifying the members and procedures of the Nine Trey Bloods gang, with whom he is affiliated, in exchange for a lighter sentence on his own charges of racketeering, narcotics trafficking, and firearms offenses. His testimony, or his “snitch fest” as many on Twitter deemed it, was so thorough that he even named rappers Jim Jones and Cardi B as members. [In researching this article, we found that 6ix9ine never testified that Cardi B was a member.] And then the meme was born, as people made jokes that he also named other celebrities who wore red, threw up similar signs, or whoever sounded funny.

Although most of the media focus on the day was on the mention of Cardi B, there was another big moment in the testimony. At one point during questioning, prosecutors played the lyrics of his hit song “GUMMO” and asked if the lyrics included any threats against members of a rival gang. The song lyrics mentioned would only provided circumstantial evidence toward the racketeering and firearm charges brought against the Nine Trey Bloods. 6ix9ine didn’t elaborate who the lyrics were about beyond “somebody who [he] didn’t get along with.” But by including the lyrics in questioning, a new trend in prosecution is shown: prosecutors are now going after rappers for their lyrics.

Lyrics as Evidence?

Tekashi 6ix9ine’s case may be the most high profile, but it’s not the only recent case where rappers’ lyrics are on trial. Nineteen-year-old Texas rapper Tay-K was sentenced to 55 years in prison for murder and aggravated robbery last July. His song “The Race,” which he released while on the run was used in court and the press to show his violent nature. Also, a lawyer representing rapper YNW Melly for his first-degree murder case believes the prosecution plans to use the lyrics of Melly’s song “Murder on my Mind” against him in the case. This would mean that the prosecution believes a song released in 2017 is credible evidence against murders allegedly committed in February 2018. 

In both of these cases, lyrics probably can’t be used as direct evidence toward a crime. If anything, it’s extremely difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that a person committed a crime and then wrote a song about it that can count as a confession. But that doesn’t mean that a rapper’s lyrics won’t sway the jury in some way.

But What About Towards Character?

Although song lyrics are rarely successful as direct evidence, they can be used as character evidence. Put plainly, character evidence is anything that can be presented in court to show the defendant’s character and use it to prove that they likely committed the crime. It can be used to show whether a person’s honesty is in question in cases of fraud, or whether a person is likely violent. Using character evidence to prove violent tendencies goes with a certain belief: people are who they say they are. If there’s evidence that in the past they described themselves as “trigger happy” or made threats to a person’s life, then it’s likely when their rival shows up dead that they did it.

But, especially in the case of Tekashi 6ix9ine, people are not necessarily their boastings. As pointed out by New Yorker reporter Briana Younger, 6ix9ine’s testimony proves that he wasn’t real gangbanger. He admitted that he was never fully initiated into the gang; he just affiliated himself with them for “street clout” and they had an agreement that he would financially support them in exchange for keeping up that clout. Therefore, the video for “GUMMO,” which featured Nine Trey members, is a performance, not a documentary. So why was it treated as such?

Photo by  Jakob Owens  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

When the Public Won’t Consider Rap as an Art Forum

Rap music stands up to higher scrutiny in terms of reality vs. performance than other genres. Perhaps because it’s the most popular of a handful of genres that remain authentically black, hip hop/rap is seen as blackness personified. It’s taken from us (i.e. Macklemore beating Kendrick Lamar for a Grammy) and used against us. A 2009 academic study showed that “negative attitudes toward rap were associated with negative stereotypes of Blacks that blamed Blacks for their economic plights [and] discrimination against Blacks, through both personal and political behaviors.” The violence in rap music is commonly used by white people to show how black-on-black crime is an epidemic, or that infusing more resources into the black community isn’t worth it.

So when prosecutors use rap videos as character evidence proving violence, they’re using existing ignorance and discrimination within the minds of mostly-white juries to get them to find rappers guilty. The rappers’ art is used against them, even though rap is an art form that when done well requires immense skill and talent. Even though these videos and lyrics are usually the only avenue the rapper had towards gaining economic security in the hood.

When They Can’t See Us

Beyond the horror of seeing another prosecutors develop another tool in the mass incarceration toolbox, this trend should scare us because it’s showing that white people see rap videos as the typical Black life. All art isn’t evidence of character. It’s pretty much assumed by white people that Stephen King isn’t the deranged murderers that he writes, or that Al Pacino isn’t the mobsters he plays in movies. But Black artists don’t get that consideration. Instead our imagination and works of art is seen as our reality, and our reality is questioned even when recorded.

We live in a time when music videos are treated as irrefutable evidence in court, but real-life cell-phone footage of police killing an unarmed person is met with skepticism and suggestions that we should doubt our eyes.
— Briana Younger, The New Yorker

Using rap lyrics as evidence in court can only lead to stronger discrimination towards black people. It’s tough to find a solution to this problem without burning the whole policing and court system that leads to mass incarceration to the ground. But a good way to start is to highlight the concept of rap music as an art forum. Whether it’s out of a desire for financial freedom or love of the genre, black people use hip hop and rap to express themselves and their imagination. Rappers shouldn’t be prosecuted for that.

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