Rap lyrics: Is the culture on trial?
When the recent news of rappers Young Thug and Gunna’s arrest was made public, shockwaves were sent through the rap and hip hop community. For some, it was even more shocking when news broke that they were being charged with a number of crimes violating the Racketeering and Crime Organization Act. The rappers, born Jeffery Williams and Sergio Kitchens, are famous for their violent, yet common and catchy lyrics. As information continues to be released about their charges and upcoming trial, the lyrics have gone from the music charts, to the courtroom as evidence.
Photo from XXL Magazine
For decades, fans of rap and hip hop have known that when a rapper is arrested and charged with a crime, not only are they on trial – their lyrics may be as well. Months after the arrest, Fani Willis, Fulton County District Attorney, stated that rap lyrics will be used as evidence against defendants if the case calls for it.
With rap and hip-hop being a predominantly Black genre of music, it leaves listeners and fans to wonder if it is truly the lyrics they are after… or is it a misunderstanding of Black culture?
While it may seem as though it is a new practice, using rap lyrics as evidence in court has been done for a while. “I think there’s more conversation around it but prosecutors have been doing this for years,” said Donita Morris, Fulton County Assistant District Attorney. Morris believes social media is the cause for more rappers hence more lyrics. Whether the rapper is famous or not, if the music is public, it is available for use as evidence.
Hip hop/rap is not the only genre to produce violent lyrics in their music. Genres like heavy metal and screamo breed violence and anarchy within their lyrics but on rare occasions are the lyrics an automatic admission of guilt.
Outside of heavy metal, there are mainstream songs that contain violent nature. Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People describes the actions of a school shooting. While the band members of Foster The People have not had to stand trial, the song has received significant praise and accolades. The song went on to reach number three on the Billboard Top 100 music charts in 2011. Billboard also considers the song to be one of the top 100 songs of the decade. There are many other examples of perceived admittance in lyrics created by White musicians, for example: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. In the chorus, the singer references having a gun, holding it to a man’s head, and killing him. Neither set of lyrics seemingly determined the value of White culture.
Is it because we’re black?
Some may feel that White musicians with violent lyrics are not held to the same standard as Black musicians with violent lyrics. Les Alexander, a Musician and Music Industry Management student at Georgia State University, says he believes rap lyrics, specifically, are being targeted.
“Rap music has always been an outlet to narrate the lifestyle or paint the picture of what goes on in our communities. It’s easier to look there and just assume rather than do your work as a law enforcement agent and figure out what is actually going on”. Alexander said.
Alexander goes on to state that the 13th amendment loophole creates an even bigger target on the backs of Black rappers. He feels the wording may suggest that rap lyrics being used as evidence in court is just another tactic to censor, silence, and lock away Black people.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Now that the Black community and rappers alike may feel there is a target on their backs, the practice of systemic racism is being called into question. Jenz inna Benz, an Atlanta rapper, believes that this is a form of systemic racism at play. Simply put, the rapper says, “People are racist out here.”
Systemic racism, otherwise known as institutional racism, is racism that is practiced through laws or societal order. With all of the examples of lyrics being used as evidence in court being those of rap music and Black musicians, it may be hard for some people to believe this is not systemic racism in practice. Alexander states “I think it’s silencing our voices and making us afraid of what we can and what we can’t say.”
The First Amendment continues to stand in protection of free speech amongst other things vital to our citizenship. The amendment does not directly protect rap lyrics, however, it may cause some people to feel as though they cannot speak freely without it later causing harm to them, just as Alexander stated.
“We’re not saying you can’t say it. We’re saying if you do choose to say it and it cooperates with a crime that we’re prosecuting, it may be used against you.” said Morris. Alexander happens to disagree. He states that it’s still easy to get roped in, “It’s a suggested silence tactic.”
The government may not be telling rappers not to say certain things but being that it is the only genre being held under a spotlight in open court, it may be hard for rappers to feel safe.
Protecting the culture
Progress seems to be making headway in different areas of the country. In late September 2022, Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, signed a bill that significantly restricts the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court. The bill requires prosecutors to have great reason to use the lyrics. It is also the goal of the bill to check biases that may occur if the lyrics are used as evidence. When asked if he thinks this will become a practice of other states or if this will become a national bill, Alexander stated “It is up to people to decide what they want and who should represent us. It’s up to the vote.”
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