Two American rappers were charged on gang-related charges last week, with prosecutors citing their lyrics and music videos as evidence — a strategy that has been widely documented and criticized in the United States and Canada.
The 88-page indictment filed in Fulton County, Georgia alleges that Young Thug – an Atlanta rapper who co-wrote This is America with Childish Gambino – is the co-founder of a gang called Young Slime Life (YSL). Gunna, a top rap artist on Young Thug’s YSL label, has also been charged.
The gang allegedly committed several murders, shootings and carjackings over the past decade, promoting their activities through song lyrics and social media, according to prosecutors involved in the indictment.
The two are accused of conspiring to violate the RICO Act, a US law that targets criminal organizations. The indictment references several music videos of Young Thug, including the lyrics: “I never killed anyone but I had something to do with this body” and “I told them to shoot a hundred shots “.
The case is the most high-profile example in recent memory of a lawsuit over rap music. Researchers say that regardless of an accused’s guilt, the use of rap lyrics and music videos as evidence of a crime unfairly targets young black men and exploits gender stereotypes.
A “double standard”
In Canada, more than a dozen cases have been documented in which rap lyrics have been used by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, but critics say the practice ignores contextual elements important to rap music, such as artistic expression, the adoption of alter egos and the use of hyperbole.
The rap community – including rappers Jay Z, TI and Meek Mill – has long criticized the use of rap lyrics in the courtroom.
Following news of Young Thug and Gunna’s indictment, Toronto rapper Cadence Weapon took to Twitter to condemn the use of lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing.
The YSL RICO case selects some Young Thug lyrics as evidence of a criminal conspiracy. But these famous words have never been subject to legal scrutiny:
Johnny Cash: ‘I shot a man in Reno just to see him die’
Why is artistic license viable for some artists but not for others? pic.twitter.com/W7SPBl0AI9
“Why is artistic license viable for some artists but not for others?” he asked, quoting the famous words of Johnny Cash from 1953 Folsom Prison Blues: “But I shot a man in Reno / just to see him die.”
“Some artists can outlaw and use artistic license and be celebrated for it,” he tweeted. “When rappers do the same, their art becomes obvious. This double standard has to stop.”
The rapper, whose real name is Roland Pemberton, declined to be interviewed for this article.
American record producer Metro Boomin also expressed his displeasure with the indictment on the social media platform, writing that using song lyrics to indict someone is “lame” and “a joke. “.
AR Shaw, an Atlanta-based music historian on trap music (a rap subgenre with lyrical content dealing with drug use and drug-related violence) said it was ” probably the most publicized case in terms of the use of rap lyrics”. for an indictment.
The practice has been criticized as discriminatory due to rap music’s association with the black community.
“It’s definitely unfair in its racial implications, because … the artists are overwhelmingly black,” Shaw said.
A form of artistic expression – not an autobiography
Rap artists often adopt alternative personas or tell stories from their communities as a form of artistic expression, said Dijah SB, a Toronto-based rapper.
That’s not to say all rap lyrics are fictionalized or taken from other people — but there’s a misconception that rappers constantly use autobiographical material in their music, the rapper said.
“Even though people like to think that everything a rapper says is directly something they’ve been through or been through, most of the time it’s just, more so, a tool to express ourselves” , they said.
The authorized use of rap lyrics as courtroom evidence has been observed in at least 19 criminal cases in Canada, according to a 2016 article by University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich.
In 2012, Lamar Skeete, who goes by the stage name Ammo, was convicted of first degree murder in the murder of a man named Kenneth Mark. The evidence against Skeete included the lyrics to the song “don’t fall for the brass”, which prosecutors say demonstrated he followed a code of silence.
Skeete’s 2019 appeal that the lyrics were improperly allowed into evidence was dismissed, and he is serving a life sentence.
Mark Moore, an aspiring rapper from Toronto, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the murders of four men.
The Crown argued that Moore’s lyrics “reflect that he felt that having a reputation for street violence was an essential aspect of success as a rap singer”. They added that his words suggested he wanted revenge for himself being shot in 2001.
Defense attempts to put lyrics into context for jury
Moore’s defense team asked that parts of the evidence be dismissed as irrelevant, but the judge ruled the evidence was admissible, according to court records by CanLii.
In another case, Toronto rapper Heartless G, real name Chael Mills, and his associate Lavare Williams had six music videos and lyrics admitted as evidence against them in a murder trial. They were charged and sentenced of first and second degree murder, respectively, in 2013.
Tanovich wrote in an article from 2016 for The Walrus that the case marked the first time so many rap lyrics and videos had been admitted into a Canadian courtroom, “undoubtedly” influencing the jury.
In a standout case, a judge ruled that rap lyrics were not admissible as evidence. When Orville Campbell’s lyrics were submitted in a 2012 murder case – “One shot / leave your brain on your Nikes” and “One shot / got you spinning like gymnastics” – the prosecution was rejected. Campbell was found guilty regardless of the disqualification.
Prior to this case, only two cases had been identified in which words were ruled inadmissible as evidence, including one involving serial killer Paul Bernardo, a white man.
Hilary Dudding, a Toronto criminal defense attorney who defended Campbell at this trial, said there is a significant parallel between the Young Thug/Gunna case and Canadian cases in which rap lyrics have been tried. admissible as evidence.
“The cases where we see admission to Canada tend to be cases where they are used to prove the existence of a criminal organization, which is the same thing they are trying to do in Gunna’s case, with the YSL indictment,” she said.
A “detrimental impact”
Dudding explained that defense teams have fought for the right to bring in a rap expert who can contextualize the art form — so the words aren’t simply taken at face value.
The intention is for the jury “to be able to understand why people choose these themes, what the process is for artists as they develop their music,” she said.
“Studies have shown time and time again that there is a strongly detrimental impact that stems from the admission of rap music into lawsuits, and that cannot be denied.”
Prosecutors often present rap lyrics as autobiographical rather than a form of artistic expression – and this can exploit stereotypes against black people, especially young men, writes Erik Nielson, an American scholar who studies hip hop culture .
Based on Nielson’s research of US cases, documented in the 2019 book Rap on trial: race, lyrics and guilt in America co-written by Andrea Dennis, the vast majority resulted in a conviction with lengthy sentences – and one with capital punishment.
“The question is not whether these young men committed the crimes for which they were convicted,” Nielson wrote in an article from 2020. “The question is whether they received a fair trial from an impartial jury. When rap lyrics are presented as evidence, it becomes very questionable.”
Like Cadence Weapon’s invocation of Johnny Cash, some argue that rap is the only genre in which someone could write violent lyrics and have them perceived as damaging or confessional.
The Odds Are Already Against Black Artists: The Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 2021 published a report describing anti-black racism within the Canadian criminal justice system.
In the US, the New York State Legislature this week passed a bill called ‘Rap on Trial’, which requires lyrics to be proven to be literal – not figurative or fictitious – in order to be admissible. as proof.
To Dunning’s knowledge, no such reform exists in Canada — although some effort were made to allow attorneys to screen jury members for racial bias.