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Death of the Writer: Rap Lyrics as Court Evidence



Mens rea and actus reus are the two components of a criminal conviction. The guilty mind and the guilty act. These are the two fundamental elements that must be established in order to convict someone of a crime. However, where does the line blur between creativity and evidence? 


Rap lyrics have been used by prosecutors as alleged evidence in criminal cases, putting rappers behind bars. Despite bills being passed limiting the use of lyrics as evidence it continues to be done. This practice usually targets up-and-coming artists without the notoriety or resources to mount a strong defence. While the scope of the indictments goes far beyond lyrics, the use of a rapper’s lyrics as part of the evidence is what has drawn such pushback from the music industry. Especially when these lyrics are central to the prosecution’s argument and characterized as an admission of sorts.


Violence in music is nothing new nor is it exclusive to rap. Taylor Swift has a song entitled no body, no crime all about how she murders her friend’s cheating husband and gets away with it. Lyrics such as:


“Good thing my daddy made me get a boating license when I was fifteen

And I’ve cleaned enough houses to know how to cover up a scene

Good thing Este’s sister’s gonna swear she was with me

Good thing his mistress took out a big life insurance policy”


Although there probably is no scenario where she would have to sit in front of a jury and explain that, no, she didn’t really kill a man and toss his body overboard. Pop music is allowed exaggeration and the creativity to tell a story. Similarly to how people write books, lyrics and music is an art that is oftentimes made up and/or exaggerated. Surely Donna Tartt wouldn’t be seen having to defend herself against the murder of her university classmate and Colleen Hoover would not get CPS called on her for the Verity journal entries. Referencing rap lyrics in criminal charges is a practice with the implication that they are reflections of reality, discounting rap as a form of artistic expression. 


This is because rap is seen as inherently violent and the only art form targeted this way. Usually, when prosecutors use lyrics as evidence, it’s because there’s a lack of factual connection to the alleged crime as a form of character evidence to influence a jury. Ultimately, it’s a racist practice that prevents the defendant from getting a fair trial, majority of whom are Black. It’s another way to punish Black communities and Black art.


According to a study conducted a few years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], almost 80% of cases examined as of 2013 admitted the defendants’ rap lyrics into evidence. 


In 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the appeal of rapper Vonte Skinner whose lyrics were admitted at his trial for attempted murder and related charges. Lyrics that he wrote before the shooting occured. After hearing the lyrics, along with other pieces of evidence, the jury convicted him. However, the appellate court concluded that the lyrics were highly prejudicial and should never have been admitted. The state of New Jersey then appealed but the state supreme court agreed: the verses should never have come into evidence. 


Artists should be allowed the freedom to create and express without worry that they’ll be arrested for their art. The use of rap lyrics as evidence should be called what it is: weak evidence used to target a primarily Black community. Art is inherently political, overtly or subtlely. To use self expression as evidence without actual evidence is to undervalue, undermine, and censor. If the jury or persecutor doesn’t have any substantial evidence beyond a few lines that could very well be made up, maybe it’s a weak case and they’re just looking for someone to blame.


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