The Case Against Rap Lyrics as Evidence in Court

The intersectionality between American HipHop and Gang culture runs deep, but freedom of expression cannot be understated. It’s art.

Allow me to start by making a disclaimer that I am not a legal professional versed in the American justice system, and so this is information that I have gathered from various sources on the web to ease understanding of this case (I’ll link all the sources for your perusal).
Last week, 28 members of Atlanta-based record label YSL, including co-founder and rapper Young Thug alongside fellow rapper Gunna, were arrested facing a RICO indictment. YSL stands for Young Stoner Life/ Young Slime Life, and RICO refers to the (American) Racketeering Influenced and Corruptions Act.

After skimming through the indictment (it’s 88 pages long, you can find it here if you’re interested), there are 56 crimes brought forth in the document, and much of the evidence presented consists of lyrics which have been copy pasted word for word bar for bar from Young Thug’s music, including pictures and videos from his Instagram showing affiliation with the group (YSL). You can have a look at some of the lyrics in the indictment in this Twitter thread, with one of the lyrics being, “I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body”.

In this post I want to discuss the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court, but before we get there I think it would be prudent to first discuss what a RICO charge is in the first place. Because this is an American law, I was sent down rabbit holes in the name of research trying to figure it out. I was able to get good resources from Wikipedia, as well as this Twitter thread. In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know:

The Racketeering Influenced and Corruptions Act is a law that provides for criminal penalties (and civil course of action) for crimes committed in furtherance to the ‘enterprise’ of a gang. Basically, it is possible under this law to take down many members of a gang at once if it can be proven that the crimes of even a few members were beneficial to the entire gang. For context, this law was enacted in America in the ’70s in order to take down the Mafia. As you can imagine, trying to take down an entire syndicate can be an arduous task if you’re not able to tie all members to a crime committed by a few. In the case of Thug & co, there are 56 crimes in the indictment which the 28 arrested persons are being charged with, simply by virtue of being part of the group. In more layman’s terms, think of RICO like if someone wrongs you, not only do you block them, but you block everyone who’s cool with them as well. That’s sort of what a RICO sweep is.

If you’re wondering how this law went from being used against the Mafia to rappers, you and me both. Knowing that Black people are already overrepresented in the criminal justice system in America, it isn’t far fetched to say that there are racially motivated nuances to strategically taking down a group of Black men. In this npr article, they say ‘RICO is most commonly used as a tactic to sweep up entire street gangs, and the definition of a street gang gets real spongy when you look at it in Black communities. When prosecutors apply RICO to rap, it’s not just the rappers getting caught up in the system, but it’s their whole crew and their whole entourage. Everyone is being roped in and classified as a gang member’.

This is not the first time rappers are facing RICO charges in the USA, after all, the relationship between HipHop and Gang Culture runs deep, as was articulated in this article. Notable rappers who have faced RICO charges include Bobby Shmurda, Tekashi69, and YFN Lucci who is said to be a long standing rival of Thug. According to this Twitter thread again, the worst part about a RICO charge comes when members begin to turn on each other to save themselves. Basically, members who give up information first are more likely to gain favour from the prosecutor. This is known as a Proffer Agreement.

What’s interesting is that some of the charges in the indictment date all the way back to 2013 (including the shooting of Lil Wayne’s tour bus back in 2015), and the group is being accused of 50 murders in total. This begs the question, as many Twitter users have put it, ‘the prosecution watched as 50 bodies allegedly dropped over the span of 8 years in order to build a case, and when they finally arrest the alleged perpetrators, they use rap lyrics to show their involvement?’ I don’t know about you, but to me that says a lot about how the American justice system views Black people and Black lives.

In recent times, HipHop artists have come out to speak against the use of rap lyrics as admissible evidence in court, citing that it is a violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression. ‘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.’ Rapper Fat Joe said in this Rolling Stone article on the subject.

In a recent Nicki Minaj interview speaking to Joe Budden, she said (paraphrased), ’can you imagine telling a rapper he’s a bad person because he didn’t clarify how much drugs he was talking about in a certain lyric? It’s art. We don’t hold rappers to the same standard as film directors; no one asks them about all the murders in their movies, or the actors, or the writers’.

I personally agree with the sentiments of both Fat Joe and Nicki Minaj on the matter, and as this Variety article puts it, I do believe that use of Young Thug’s lyrics against him in court is unprecedented racism. Artists since time immemorial have taken on personas in their craft that do not necessarily reflect who they are outside of their art, and lyrics are not to be taken as literal accounts of ones dealings. No other genre seems to have such a target on its back, and as Sidney Carmichael put it in this NPR article, ‘…artistic merits of hip-hop are not judged in the same way that they are for other genres. It’s not seen as creativity or even genius as much as it’s seen as just autobiography. Like, “How can people be making this stuff up, particularly Black kids? They gotta be just rapping what they know.” It strikes at the more prejudicial ways that Black art and Black music are judged in this country [America]’.

Art by @gallery_provence on instagram

Your thoughts? Feel free to go through any of the linked articles and Twitter threads, including this Complex article. Hope this post helped somebody!

Connect with me on Instagram & Twitter.

Published by mumbimacharia

Performing spoken word poet, writer, event curator, East African.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: