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Subversive or truthful? How rap lyrics can be viewed as a confession by the US justice system

"I never killed anybody. But I got somethin' to do with that body." It's a safe bet that Young Thug never thought the lyrics to his song "Anybody" would, one day, lead to his arrest

Published: May 20, 2022 04:10:15 PM IST

Subversive or truthful? How rap lyrics can be viewed as a confession by the US justice systemYoung Thug was arrested on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, along with 27 other artists from his label, Young Slime Life. Image: SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP©

Prejudice surrounding rap music is strong. Its lyrics are regularly accused of causing all sorts of behavioural problems, from insolence and poor school performance to physical violence. Courts of law take all this very seriously and can equate the lyrics of some songs to confessions.

"I never killed anybody. But I got somethin' to do with that body." It's a safe bet that Young Thug never thought the lyrics to his song "Anybody" would, one day, lead to his arrest. But that's pretty much what happened. The Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was arrested on Tuesday, May 10, along with 27 other artists from his label, YSL Records (Young Stoner Life Records). They are accused of violating the Rico Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) against organized crime.

In an 88-page indictment document, Georgia prosecutors accuse Young Thug of being one of the founders of Young Slime Life, a gang that originated on the streets of Atlanta in 2012 and was affiliated with the Bloods. They claim that this organization committed or conspired to commit a lengthy list of crimes including murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a lethal weapon, carjacking, various scams and drug trafficking.

To support their case, prosecutors are relying on witnesses and physical evidence... but also on some of Young Thug's songs. "Slime Shit," "Original Slime Shit" and "Anybody" are cited in the indictment document for their violent lyrics, which could supposedly be examples of "overt acts." An interpretation that the lawyer Manny Arora totally refutes. "By saying that 'we're using lyrics that a rapper's using,' that would basically put everybody that raps out of business or in jail based on those words. Under that logic, Johnny Cash has killed multiple people because his music talks about killing multiple people," the attorney told CBS 46.

An admission of guilt?

For the past decade, rap lyrics have been used in court cases in the United States. One such example is Tekashi 6ix9ine. The New Yorker was indicted by the US justice system in November 2018 along with other members of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods gang. He had joined this organized gang to advance his career, gain protection and gain credibility in the rap world. Facing up to 47 years in prison, the musician, known for his colorful look, agreed to testify against his former Bloods associates. He used his own lyrics and the video for his hit song "Gummo" to support his claims.

Other big names in rap music, such as T-Kay, YNW Melly and Drakeo the Ruler, have also been caught up in this long-running dispute between rap music and the law. Prosecutors often consider the content of rap songs to be an admission of guilt, or at least circumstantial evidence. This evidence is all the more difficult to refute because it is based on stereotypes that the authorities have internalized about this musical genre and its representatives.

Rap music originated within hip-hop culture in the black ghettos of the United States in the late 1970s. It quickly became a musical expression of systemic inequality and the violence this often engenders. While the genre has evolved greatly over the years, it is still perceived in the collective subconscious as the embodiment of aggression, non-conformity and organized crime.

These biases can backfire on rappers when the content of their songs is used against them in court. Researchers at California State University observed that people were more likely to believe that an 18-year-old black man was capable of murder if they were shown the violent and sexually explicit lyrics of some of his rap songs. "Creative expression in any art form ... may be seen by the public as an authentic expression of personality," reads the study, published in 1999 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. "It seems that people may indeed be inclined to identify an artist with his/her artistic product."

Working to change mindsets

This phenomenon extends beyond the borders of the United States. Unknown T, one of the most promising voices of drill music in the UK, found himself facing a similar situation in 2020. At the time, the rapper was accused of stabbing Steve Narvaez-Jara, a 20-year-old student, at a party in London. The prosecutors in the case tried to introduce the lyrics of his songs as evidence, which the judge refused. Unknown T was eventually cleared of the charges against him.

Many artists and free speech advocates are concerned that rap songs are increasingly being treated as confessions by the courts. In this spirit, Jay-Z, Kelly Rowland and Fat Joe signed an open letter last January advocating for a change to New York law that would prevent rap lyrics from being used as evidence in criminal trials.

The bill, titled "Rap Music on Trial," was first proposed in November 2021 by Senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey. Its purpose is to prohibit the use of a song's lyrics unless there is "clear and convincing evidence" of a link between those lyrics and a crime. For the rapper Fat Joe, the survival of rap culture is at stake, as he explained to Rolling Stone magazine. "Our lyrics are a creative form of self-expression and entertainment—just like any other genre. We want our words to be recognized as art rather than being weaponized to get convictions in court."

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