Rap on Trial: Do Violent Lyrics Prove a Crime?

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Photo by Riky Kurniawan via Flickr

Rap music was created, in large part, as a response to social marginalization and police oppression, and it has had a contentious relationship with the legal system— perhaps more than any other music genre.

Although during its early years, rap music’s distribution was limited by legal sanctions and police disruption due to the perceived threatening nature of the music, today we see a shift from censoring rap to using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases across the country.

In these cases, rap lyrics—especially gangsta rap lyrics—are treated as autobiographical confessions rather than art or entertainment. Cases where lyrics are introduced typically involve aspiring rappers—mostly young black men from impoverished backgrounds—who are seeking commercial success by mimicking the lyrical style and content of more famous rappers.

For example, in one recent case, university student and aspiring rapper, Olutosin Oduwole, was charged with making a terrorist threat because of scribbled rap lyrics found in his car. In another case, prosecutors introduced rap lyrics to prove that Clyde Smith was illegally selling prescription medicine. Both young men explained that their lyrics were fictional, but were convicted.

Similar outcomes have occurred in cases where the defendant was accused of murder and participating in gang activities.

Other music genres frequently feature violent and misogynistic lyrics, but the practice of introducing lyrics as evidence of criminal intent or as confession evidence is virtually unheard of for any other genre except rap.

More: Criminologist Says Rap Music Shouldn’t Be Used To Incriminate Defendants

This practice raises questions about whether prosecutors, judges and jurors may be relying on stereotypes about rap music to inform their evaluations of the lyrics and those who write them, which may affect trial outcomes.

Only a handful of studies have empirically examined concerns about this practice. One, for example, examined the public reaction to violent rap lyrics such as Ice T’s “Cop Killer.” Another looked at gangsta rap lyrics written by a defendant in a murder trial.

But such studies are methodologically limited and becoming increasingly outdated. My research addresses these limitations, and builds upon this small but important line of research.

One of my studies, entitled “The Threatening Nature of ‘Rap’ Music,” published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, addresses the question of whether, in fact, violent lyrics are perceived as more threatening, dangerous and literal when they are described as rap compared to country music.

In a set of experiments conducted with my co-authors Dr. Charis Kubrin and Dr. Nicholas Scurich, we examined the impact of genre-specific stereotypes on the evaluation of violent song lyrics. Participants, who were predominantly white, read lyrics from an existing folk song, but were randomly assigned to learn that the lyrics were rap or country. Folk lyrics were selected to isolate the effect of genre label and remove confounds such as the lyrics’ style or content.

Study 1 found that participants deemed identical lyrics more literal, offensive, and in greater need of regulation when they were characterized as rap compared to country. Study 2 used a different set of lyrics and again detected this effect, revealing the robustness of this finding.

Study 3 used the same approach but experimentally manipulated whether the songwriter was described as white or black. Consistent with the two previous studies, lyrics were evaluated more negatively when they were categorized as rap compared to when they were categorized as country.

However, the race of the songwriter did not significantly affect how the lyrics were evaluated, suggesting that cultural stereotypes might be driving the effect.

Collectively, these findings highlight the possibility that rap lyrics could inappropriately influence jurors when admitted as evidence to prove guilt. In particular, the findings suggest that rap lyrics might influence jurors’ decisions independent of their actual content.

In other words, the mere label of “rap” is sufficient to induce negative evaluations, even when holding constant the actual lyrics.

This has direct implications for judges who must consider and weigh potential prejudicial impact against probative value when deciding whether to admit rap lyrics as evidence. More to the point, the findings suggest that judges might underappreciate the extent to which the label of lyrics – and not the substantive lyrics themselves – impact jurors’ decisions.

Our research suggests that judges should consider limiting the introduction of rap lyrics to instances in which the lyrics are highly probative of some relevant legal issue.

The findings also raise other questions that merit attention.

For example, there is a concern that jurors might make negative inferences about the author of rap lyrics, in large part, because of rap-specific stereotypes. If jurors use rap lyrics to determine whether a defendant is the “type of person” who would commit a crime—assumptions jurors are not allowed to make—the lyrics are potentially excludable evidence.

In fact, results from ongoing research reveal that when violent lyrics are described as rap, individuals, on average, are more likely to view the songwriter as being in a gang and having a criminal disposition, compared to when identical lyrics are described as country, punk, or heavy metal.

Adam Dunbar

In other ongoing research I am exploring the specific adjudicative consequences of using rap lyrics as evidence in a criminal trial.

This research comes at a time when scholars are attempting to understand continued racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes in spite of declines in reported overt racism. This research offers one example of a novel way that race and the criminal justice system may interact.

As my studies reveal, it is important to expand research to explore how other cognitive processes shape inferences of criminality, especially those that disproportionately impact people and communities of color.

See also: Criminologist Says Rap Music Shouldn’t Be Used To Incriminate Defendants, (TCR December 31, 2015).

Adam Dunbar is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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