Monday, March 31, 2014

Are Rap Music Lyrics Criminal Confessions?

Did you know that there is an increasingly frequent prosecutorial tactic of using rap music lyrics, or at least rap music lyrics written by black musicians, as evidence of criminal activity or conspiracy or as crimes in and of themselves? It's something that doesn't make a lot of sense to me but there are a lot of things in this world that don't make a lot of sense to me. In order to make these kinds of arguments you would think that prosecutors would have to do violence to all sorts of standards of evidence as well as the first amendment and basic logic but I'm not a prosecutor. I thought that you might have some sort of right to free speech and the ability to create fiction, even disturbing fiction, without having it be seized upon as a criminal confession but apparently I was wrong.
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The case had gone cold. Four years after the 2007 murders of Christopher Horton, 16, and Brian Dean, 20, detectives here had little to go on. No suspects. No sign of the gun used to shoot the men. No witnesses to the shooting outside a house where officers found Mr. Horton sprawled next to a trash can and Mr. Dean on the front porch.  But in 2011, the case was reassigned to a detective who later came across what he considered a compelling piece of evidence: a YouTube video of Antwain Steward, a local rapper with the stage name Twain Gotti, performing his song “Ride Out.” “But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him,” Mr. Steward sang on the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.” Mr. Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the lyrics to be a boast that he was responsible and, based largely on the song, charged him last July with the crimes. 
Today, his case is one of more than three dozen prosecutions in the past two years in which rap lyrics have played prominent roles. The proliferation of cases has alarmed many scholars and defense lawyers, who say that independent of a defendant’s guilt or innocence, the lyrics are being unfairly used to prejudice judges and juries who have little understanding that, for all its glorification of violence, gangsta rappers are often people who have assumed over-the-top and fictional personas. In some of the cases, the police say the lyrics represent confessions. More often, the lyrics are used to paint an unsavory picture of a defendant to help establish motive and intent. And, increasingly, the act of writing the lyrics themselves is being prosecuted — not because they are viewed as corroborating an incident, but because prosecutors contend that the words themselves amount to a criminal threat.

I'm not a big rap music fan and haven't really been since the early to mid nineties or so. The music no longer speaks to me. That said, in today's pop music and certainly among the past there have been all sorts of lyrics that may or may not be disturbing, challenging, stupid, boastful, sexist, racist, simple, complex and every other adjective good or bad that applies to art that human beings created. These lyrics are usually understood by most people who do not exclusively breathe through their mouth as not to be taken literally. For example, consider the following:

Dangerous song lyrics that were really criminal confessions.

Well I stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)- Jimi Hendrix

I'm your doctor when in need/Want some coke have some weed
You know me I'm your friend/Your main boy, thick and thin
I'm your pusherman
Pusherman- Curtis Mayfield

I hear the click clack on your feet on the stairs/I know you're no scare eyed honey
There'll be a feast if you just come upstairs/But it's no hanging matter/it's no capital crime
I can see that you're just fifteen years old/No I don't want your id
Stray Cat Blues- The Rolling Stones

Freedom came my way one day/And I started out of town
All of a sudden I saw sheriff John Brown
Aiming to shoot me down
So I shot -- I shot --- I shot him down and I say:
If I am guilty I will pay
I Shot the Sheriff- Bob Marley

You let me violate you/You let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you/You let me complicate you
Help me I broke apart my insides/Help me I've got no soul to sell
Help me the only thing that works for me/Help me get away from myself
I want to f*** you like an animal
Closer- Nine Inch Nails

Your world was made for you by someone above
But you chose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed
Lord of This World- Black Sabbath

I've got something to say/I raped your mother today
And it doesn't matter much to me/As long as she spread
Last Caress- The Misfits                                                                                                           
If this logic put forth in the NYT story holds then someone should have arrested Jimi Hendrix for EPA violations, arrested Curtis Mayfield for racketeering, narcotics trafficking and conspiracy charges, arrested Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for pandering and statutory rape, arrested Bob Marley for first degree murder, arrested both Trent Reznor and The Misfits for rape, and arrested Ozzy Osborne and Geezer Butler for being the Devil.
To me this is very simple. If a prosecutor has serious evidence that someone committed a crime then of course they should pursue a case against that person. But using a piece of music as such evidence and actually convicting a person of charges based on nothing else than their music is ridiculous, unless you also believe that Robert DeNiro is a dangerous hit man/mob boss/serial killer; The Shining really was Stephen King's confession of child abuse; or that based on his characters' descriptions and internal thoughts in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin is a man with an unhealthy interest in teen girls who should be locked up before he harms one. I mean how stupid is this? Using a rap video as evidence in a criminal trial of a rapper seems like using the infamous eyeball scene in Casino to prove that Joe Pesci is really a dangerous killer for the Chicago Outfit.  

This appears like nothing so much as (1) a way for lazy prosecutors to avoid doing serious work of finding real evidence of criminal behavior and (2) for authoritarian types to shut down black identified music that they don't like. It's the same of story of assuming that whatever black people are doing, in this case rap music, is pathological. And race aside, I think the actions of these police and prosecutors show a serious and quite problematic hostility to free speech. But I could be wrong of course...


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