“I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy…”
Somebody call the police, because Eric Clapton has publicly admitted to shooting someone!
If that sounds absurd, it’s because no one would believe that the lyrics that Eric Clapton (or any other artist, for that matter) sings onstage are an autobiographical confession.
So, why, then, are judges across the country allowing rap lyrics as evidence of violent crime?
A recent New York Times op ed reports that the New Jersey Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Vonte Skinner, a man convicted in 2008 for his alleged involvement in a 2005 shooting. In 2012, his conviction was overturned by an appellate court, which ruled that Skinner’s lyrics never should have been allowed into evidence: “We have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found the defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.”
Other than the lyrics—some of which were written years before the shooting happened, and none of which mentioned the victim—the prosecution in Skinner’s case relied primarily on testimony from witnesses who altered their stories several times.
Unfortunately, Skinner’s case is far from the only one. According to the Times, rap lyrics were allowed as evidence 80 percent of the time in 18 cases last year.
Artistic expression has always been just that: expression, not autobiography. Yet prosecutors have little understanding of the rap genre, and they frequently treat rap lyrics as true confessions even when the lyrics are exaggerated and outlandish.
Furthering the problem is that rappers often stay in character both inside and outside of the studio: convincing listeners that they lead the lives they rap about is an effective marketing ploy. And though it’s often just good marketing, their “authenticity” leads prosecutors to equate the rapper with the lyrics.
Admitting rap lyrics into evidence is dangerous not only because they are often fictitious accounts but also because they are highly prejudicial. Reading these lyrics to a jury reinforces the stereotype that young men of color are violent.
To see what effect this type of lyrics would have on juries, a California State University psychologist conducted a study in the late 1990s. The study’s participants were given basic information about a hypothetical 18-year-old African American man. Some were also shown a set of the man’s violent rap lyrics, while others were not. The participants exposed to the lyrics were much more likely to believe that the man was capable of committing murder.
We sincerely hope that the New Jersey Supreme Court does the right thing in this case, upholding the appellate court’s ruling and stating that rap lyrics are not a credible form of evidence.