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Criminal prosecutions based on hip-hop lyrics on the rise

Many people believe that art is a reflection of the human experience, without necessarily being a literal interpretation of it. But can art also be used as evidence in a criminal investigation into the artist? How reliable would such evidence be, given how subjective and prone to exaggeration art often is?

Police and prosecutors in many states are increasingly using lyrics from hip-hop songs as evidence in felony criminal charges against the composers. Though only about three dozen criminal cases have relied in large part on rap lyrics, it appears to be a growing trend, raising questions of free expression and the nature of rap.

Violence is a major theme in the sub-genre of gangsta rap. However, it is generally understood among its fans that the violent activity depicted in gangsta rap lyrics is exaggerated, if not wholly invented. But now, more and more, authorities claim that these lyrics are actually confessions to real-life crimes. Other times, they use the fact that the defendant is a hip-hop artist to color the jury’s perception of him, according to The New York Times.

Sometimes, the government pursues criminal charges against the performer, based on little more than the content of their music. In one case from outside of New York, a detective working on a cold-case homicide in 2011 viewed a YouTube video posted by a local artist. In the music video, the rapper said, “But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him / roped him / sharpened up the shank / then I poked him / 357 Smith & Wesseon beam scoped him.”

The artist denies that he was confessing to the homicide, but was charged with the killing in July.

It appears that authorities are focusing on rap lyrics more than the words from any other genre, which raises uncomfortable questions about race. This is especially true if prosecutors are using defendants’ lyrics to prejudice juries against them. Generally, evidence that is not relevant to the crime but is meant to make the defendant seem “bad” or “scary” is not supposed to be allowed at trial.

In addition, this practice would seem to be a government intrusion on free expression. Prosecuting people based on their music would seem like a possible violation of the defendants’ First Amendment rights.

Source: The New York Times, “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun,” Lorne Manly, March 26, 2014

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