Rap on Trial: What You Should Know About Using Song Lyrics as Evidence

The most renowned example of “rap on trial” to date is getting ready to begin in Atlanta. 

The jury selection phase of the YSL RICO trial began on January 4, and it is likely to continue through February as the defense counsel and prosecutor screen over 600 people to find the best jurors for the case. 

Jeffery Williams, a.k.a. Young Thug, a multi-platinum rapper, is the most famous defendant on trial. In the 65-count indictment, prosecutors allege that Williams is the head of a subsection of the Bloods dubbed Young Slime Life, which they say is responsible for killings and other crimes in Atlanta.

14 defendants are scheduled to face trial, with eight already accepting plea agreements, four being separated from the trial for lack of legal representation, and two individuals not being apprehended. 

Attempted murder, aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon, murder, armed robbery, drug dealing, theft, racketeering, witness intimidation, and carjacking are among the offenses included in the 65-count indictment. 

Prosecutors argue that rap lyrics in the indictment constitute overt actions “in furtherance of the conspiracy,” including a line from a song Young Thug allegedly published on YouTube: “I’m in the VIP, and I got that gun on my hip, you prayin that you live, I’m prayin’ that I hit.” 

Another of his songs mentioned in the indictment states, “I never murdered anyone, but I had something to do with that corpse.”

The prosecution’s use of music videos, social media, and lyrics as evidence has prompted outrage among criminal justice reform activists, who regard it as a violation of the First Amendment and an example of racially motivated incarceration.

How Are Song Lyrics Used as Evidence?

Prosecutors have mentioned multiple tracks in the YSL case as evidence of gang connections and racketeering.

The use of song lyrics as evidence is typically focused on establishing a person’s intent, state of mind, or knowledge in relation to a particular crime.

Rap lyrics are typically thought to be protected expressions under the First Amendment. Artistic expression has been specifically protected, along with political speech, which is subject to “heightened scrutiny” against government restrictions.

Generally, evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts cannot be used to show that they have a bad character and acted in accordance with that bad character on a particular occasion (including during the commission of an alleged crime). 

“Character evidence” is described by the rules of evidence (see Federal Rule 404) as tending to prejudice jurors against defendants.  

However, character evidence can be admitted for purposes other than to establish that the defendant acted in accordance with that character trait. 

For song lyrics to be admissible as evidence, they must be relevant to the issues at hand and not unduly prejudicial or inflammatory. In addition, the lyrics must be properly authenticated, meaning their source and authorship must be established through testimony or other evidence.

Rap But Not Pop?

Though some legal scholars claim that using rap lyrics to indict hip-hop artists is a violation of free speech, the practice is not new. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that courts nationwide have admitted defendants’ rap lyrics in roughly 80% of the applicable cases studied in the past decade. In particular, the lyrics of viral rappers Bobby Shmurda, Boosie, 6ix9ine, and Drakeo the Ruler, have all been used against them in court. Although Drakeo the Ruler and Boosie were acquitted, the others weren’t. 

Courts have varied in their approaches to this issue, with some allowing the introduction of rap lyrics as evidence and others finding that such evidence is unduly prejudicial and should be excluded. 

In a 2014 case in New Jersey, a defendant’s rap lyrics were admitted as evidence to prove his intent to commit a murder. However, the court emphasized that the lyrics had to be analyzed in context and were not admissible simply to show the defendant’s violent tendencies.

In 2015, a Knoxville, Tennessee, rapper named Christopher Bassett was convicted of murdering Zaevion Dobson. At trial, the prosecution showed the jury music videos featuring Bassett as evidence against him, even though the videos were recorded months before the murder and did not mention the victim. The state argued that Bassett’s sometimes graphic and violent imagery was a confession in song. 

Other states have taken a more restrictive approach to the use of rap lyrics as evidence, finding that they are highly prejudicial and have limited probative value. For example, in a 2018 case in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court held that rap lyrics were not admissible as evidence of a defendant’s character or motive unless they contained specific details that were directly related to the crime charged.

In 2022, Jay-Z and other notable musicians openly supported New York State Senate Bill S7527. The bill would restrict using lyrics in criminal proceedings, specifically stating that a person’s “artistic self-expression” includes any spoken word, music, or other forms of artistic creation. The bill also requires that any such evidence be authenticated and that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect. The bill has not yet been passed into law as of February 2023.

California Governor Gavin Newsom also signed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act into law in 2022, which restricts the use of an artist’s lyrics in criminal proceedings unless they were written around the time of the crime, have specific similarity to the crime, or contain factual details about the crime unknown to the public. The law includes all forms of artistic expression, but it is expected to have a particular impact on hip-hop artists, whose lyrics have frequently been used by prosecutors as evidence of guilt.

Other genres of music, such as country music, also contain lyrics about crimes. However, unlike rap, country music lyrics are typically understood to be fiction and are not used as criminal evidence. Country songs that feature lyrics about murder and criminal behavior include Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Dolly Parton’s “Banks of the Ohio.”

However, it appears that the most prominent use of lyrics as evidence in criminal trials centers primarily on rap music and gang-related offenses. Some say this may perpetuate racial bias, as rap is predominantly associated with black culture, and the ACLU has gone as far as saying, “Bias against rap is merely thinly-veiled bias against Black and Latinx people.”

Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer?

If you are involved in a legal matter where song lyrics may be relevant as evidence, it is generally advisable to consult with a lawyer.

A lawyer can provide you with legal advice and guidance regarding the admissibility and use of song lyrics as evidence and help you present your case in court. A lawyer can also help you evaluate the strength of your case, identify potential legal issues, and explain the relevant laws and procedures that apply to your situation.

You can always set up a consultation if you are unsure whether you need a lawyer. Many lawyers offer initial consultations free of charge or at a reduced fee. This can allow you to discuss your situation and determine whether or not you need legal representation.

Ultimately, whether or not you need a lawyer will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your case. Still, it is generally advised to speak with a lawyer before proceeding with your legal matters.

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