Law Quarterly

The Case For Killer Rhymes

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Rap and hip-hop’s association with violent and graphic images has always been contentious. Geraldo Rivera’s now-infamous comment “Hip-Hop has done more damage to black and brown people than racism in the last 10 years” is a clear indication of the thoughts of some towards these genres of music(1).

In a 1996 study performed by Carrie Fried at Indiana University, the lyrics of a song were presented to two groups of subjects as excerpts from a rap song and then as excerpts from a country song(2). When presented as a rap, subjects argued the lyrics were objectionable and merited some form of government regulation. When told excerpts were taken from a country song, the reception was less critical. Fried also noted the same phenomenon was apparent when subjects were told the lyrics were from a black singer versus a white singer.

A study by Stuart Fischoff at California State University in 1999 confirmed a jury was more likely to be prejudiced against a defendant accused of murder if shown violent rap lyrics said to be written by the defendant (3). The subjects recounted media stories of rappers who made the news for violent crimes, and implicitly associated rap lyrics with other negative personality traits. Fischoff believed this suggested that if the rap lyrics were not employed during trial, the jury would not have the same notions of the personality and character of the defendant.

In a 2006 issue of The United States Attorneys’ Manual, an FBI analyst wrote “In today’s society, many gang members compose and put their true-life experiences into lyrical form… Occasionally, the writings can be used as evidence.”(4) This quote points to the ability of rap and hip-hop lyrics to influence a jury into believing the defendant committed a crime if they wrote lyrics describing criminal activity. Further, prosecutors are encouraged to use lyrics as a form of evidence(4).

To summarize, a concrete proof of bias against rap exists, attorney generals promote using written rap lyrics as evidence against defendants, and has a real effect: studies show juries are influenced by violent rap lyrics when deciding whether to find guilty or acquit, endangering the principle of an impartial jury.

A particularly important case concerning the legality of rap lyrics in the courtroom was argued in 2008, when a man named Vonte Skinner, was accused of murder. Prosecutors relied on 13 pages rap lyrics written by Skinner heavily throughout the trial. Prosecutors read 13 pages of these lyrics to the jury. The jury convicted him, and the judge sentenced Skinner to 30 years in prison. Skinner appealed, and the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled in 2012 the rap lyrics could not be used as evidence, given the volume of studies indicating the implicit judgments made against defendants after rap lyrics are introduced to the jury(5).

A logical assumption of what should have ensued from this decision is the dismissal of rap and hip-hop lyrics as evidence in courts. However, after a thorough investigation, the ACLU found in 2013 that in New Jersey, of the 18 cases followed, rap lyrics were entered as evidence in eighty percent of these cases(6).

The Supreme Court heard a similar case in 2014. Elonis v. United States saw U.S. attorney generals argue that Elonis made threatening statements towards his estranged wife over Facebook. Prosecutors brought up numerous other posts featuring Elonis saying violent things against his wife. Elonis and his team argued these could not be taken seriously as threats. He was simply blowing off steam on his personal account and writing rap lyrics. The judge in charge of the courtroom told the jury Elonis could be guilty if “a reasonable (or objective) person would have found his postings threatening”(6).

Elonis appealed, asking prosecutors to prove he had any real intent to carry out the crime against his estranged wife. The Supreme Court agreed, citing the lower court had applied a negligence standard with the “reasonable person” clause instead of a subjective standard, which requires proving the intent to threaten or cause harm(8).

The continued prevalence of prosecutors employing a defendant’s rap and hip-hop lyrics in order to prove the defendant guilty of a crime implicitly frames the jury’s thoughts of the defendant’s personality, thus rendering the jury prejudiced and no longer impartial. As laid out in Rule 404 of the Federal Rules. Such character evidence of rap lyrics written in the past should not be used as evidence to convict a defendant of a crime.

By Contributor Greg de Tournemire

Works Cited

1. Buxton, Ryan. “Geraldo Rivera: Hip-Hop Has Damaged Black People More Than Racism In Last 10 Years.” The Huffington Post. February 18, 2015. Accessed November 01, 2018.

2. Fried, Carrie B. “Bad Rap for Rap: Bias in Reactions to Music Lyrics1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology26, no. 23 (1996): 2135-146. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1996.tb01791.x.

3. Fischoff, Stuart P. “Gangsta Rap and a Murder in Bakersfield1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology29, no. 4 (1999): 795-805. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1999.tb02025.x.

4. United States. U.S. Attorney General. Gang Prosecution. Understanding Gangs and Gang Mentality: Acquiring Evidence of the Gang Conspiracy. By Donald Lyddane. 3rd ed. Vol. 54. D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, 2006. 1-14. Accessed October 23, 2018.

5. “State v. Skinner.” CaseLaw. August 31, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2018.

6. State v. Skinner (August 31, 2012) (, Dist. file). State v. Skinner (August 31, 2012) (, Dist. file).

7. Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983 slip op. at 1 (June 1, 2015).

8. LII Staff. “Rule 404. Character Evidence; Crimes or Other Acts.” Legal Information Institute. December 01, 2011. Accessed November 01, 2018.

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