Freedom of Expression Questioned: Rap Lyrics as Evidence in Courts?

Jefferey Lamar Williams, better known by his stage name Young Thug, is among 28 individuals who were indicted in May for allegedly violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by engaging in gang activity that is supposedly linked to multiple murders, shootings, and home invasions over nearly a decade. Some of the defendants have pleaded guilty, while 14 others, including Young Thug, are still facing charges.

The defendants argue that their affiliation with the Atlanta rap group Young Stoner Life (YSL) is purely artistic, while the prosecutors claim that the group is a gang responsible for numerous criminal activities. As a result, the prosecutors plan to use Young Thug’s lyrics referencing crime and violence as evidence in court, a tactic that has been used in at least 500 cases documented by researchers at the University of Richmond between 2009 and 2019.

It raises the question about the role of music in politics and the boundaries it has with freedom of expression. However, over the last year, there has been a growing push to end the use of lyrics as evidence, and in September of last year, California became the first state to restrict the use of rap lyrics as evidence in state court through the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Unfortunately, support in other states remains reluctant.

It is interesting to note that there seems to be a correlation between rap music specifically and the lyrics chosen to be analyzed in the courtroom. Many genres, including country music, explore the darker aspects of human existence, but such expressions are not seen as an admission of guilt. It’s no surprise that the criminal justice system shows significant bias against young individuals from black and brown communities, both of whom have deep connections with rap and hip hop culture. The way hip-hop expresses certain language is often misinterpreted and there is always the possibility that it is due to intentional misconstruing and prejudices within the system.

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13 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression Questioned: Rap Lyrics as Evidence in Courts?

  1. Artistic expression has been a gray area for lawyers and the courtroom. Incredibly hard to separate the art from the artist. One sharing their experiences of trauma and struggles makes it difficult for others to express the same way. Using lyrics in court should be admissible since its censorship of their art. Lyrics have been crucial in many historical songs across all genres. Hip-hop tends to be more straightforward than having to interpret. That could be a leading cause.

  2. I would say that no, rap lyrics should not be used in court as evidence. Lyrics are not always true and do not always reflect the real world. This article reminded me of the artist Lil Tecca who is a young rapper who raps about owning many cars etc. and in a youtube video explaining his lyrics, explains that he does not have these nice luxuries or does the things he says in the song. Again lyrics are not always true, many lyrics can be exaggerated because that is what people expect from the genre. Lyrics are used to describe the unattainable or the relatable, like other art expressions it is used to evoke an emotion and like art it should not be a crime.

  3. Reading this article, one thing that I agree with is that the use of rap music lyrics as evidence in court should not be admissible. Music is a form of art and should fall under freedom of speech. Often times in rap music, artists exaggerate things in their music and tell stories that are what their audience enjoys. I agree that the criminal justice system is bias toward people of color. I think that what California has done in passing the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act should be followed across the country.

  4. This is a really interesting intersection between art and the legal system. I think it it interesting to consider that California is the first state to not allow rap lyrics to be evidence in state court through the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act. This means the other 49 states all have a law allowing lyrics to be admissible in evidence or no law directly addressing it. Although through a quick Google search I noticed that the US Congress is considering the RAP Act which stands for Restoring Artists Protection to stop the use of rap lyrics being admissible in court. They say you will need to prove the artist meant it literally and not figuratively or fictionally. Additionally, there was a top article calling out the racism behind allowing rap lyrics specifically in court, noting that the rap industry is over 90% Black artists. Instinctively when I read this post I was surprised and thought it was a bad idea to allow art to be used as evidence of someone’s real life behaviors. Can horror or murder mystery writers be arrested for writing gruesome and detailed crimes? However, I also thought of artist YNW Melly who had a hit song called “Murder on my Mind” and who has now been set to life in prison without parole for the murder of two close friends. Although the conclusive evidence was not just his lyrics, but forensic DNA and his phone location being close to the crime scenes. I think rap lyrics should be used like polygraphs: not admissible in court but can be useful to gain leads or when corroborated with real evidence.

  5. The first thought that comes to my mind when reading this article is that this is the equivalent of authors getting convicted of crimes based on what they write and nothing else. If some author decided to write a story involving organized crime or the act of committing a crime, an argument could be made in this case that the author is writing about their own crimes but just changed the names and details. If in their novel, they thoroughly describe the scene of the crime, the actions that took place, and the thought process and planning that surrounded the crime, it would be no different from a rapper today writing lyrics about a similar topic. To me, there is just too much ambiguity and assumption that must go into the case in order to prosecute a person based on what they express artistically, through song, or through story.

  6. In music, specifically rap music, there is notoriety in having a certain persona. Some rappers have adopted this persona without actually having the difficult life of the streets that you often see in rap. Therefore, its difficult to hold rappers responsible for what they “admit” to in their music. With their lyrics being used as evidence, even with possible prosecution, many would much rather risk it than not live up to the persona. This is because on the other hand, those that don’t rap about having a tough life get ridiculed for trying to rap in the first place due to the roots that the genre has with this life.

  7. As was mentioned by the article, with the rap and hip hop communities being deeply connected to black communities, the legal pursuit of lyrics as evidence in courts can easily harbor an anti-black bias. This can already be seen by the fact that only rap and hip-hop artists have been getting in trouble over their lyrics even though all genres of music have songs which go over illegal acts and situations. Another aspect is the fact that this would limit the expression of artists. It would make them wary to talk about real situations that occur and that they might want to comment on, because of fear that they might be incriminated and accused just for simply making music about scenarios that they have seen or experienced.

  8. I don’t believe that rap lyrics should be used as evidence in court. It is self expression or freedom of artistic expression. Everything that is said in lyrics, cannot be used as true evidence, as it is not a formal admission of guilt but rather an artistic form. Lyrics are not always written by the artist either, and are sometimes written by creative writers who work on these projects, and such things can be passed off in court as hearsay. It is true that rap and hip-hop are targeted the most, and a large audience of that music are people from black and brown communities, which are the most targeted in the Justice system. Using evidence of rap lyrics in court is a sign of stereotype/discrimination and a threat to freedom of speech/expression.

  9. I do not think rap lyrics should be used as evidence in court rooms. It is very clear that it can be easily used to discriminate black men. This reminds me of the war on drugs and how cocaine is statistically used more by white people and they often get less sentencing for the use or possession of it. Whereas crack is used more by racial minorities and they oftentimes get more sentencing for it. The reason I bring this up is because the article mentions country music also express darker themes, but will never be considered as evidence in court rooms. The obvious reason being because white people dominate the country genre.

  10. I agree; rap lyrics should not be used as evidence unless that person is confessing to the crime. Courts want to try and find a way to convict rappers based on their lyrics because if someone identifies as a person of a crime in their lyrics, they may be strongly associating that with their identity. But it’s still not sound evidence. Others don’t necessarily misconstrue the lyrics that rappers create. They have a level of honesty that coincides with that rapper’s identity.

  11. I agree; I don’t think rap lyrics should be used as evidence unless that person is confessing to the crime. I think courts want to try and find a way to convict rappers based on their lyrics because if someone identifies as a person of a crime in their lyrics, they may be strongly associating that with their identity. But it’s still not sound evidence. I don’t think others necessarily misconstrue the lyrics that rappers create. I think they have a level of honesty that coincides with that rapper’s identity.

  12. This article sheds light on the indictment of Young Thug, a musical artist and others that he is supposedly affiliated with. The prosecution is using Young Thug’s lyrics referencing crimes against him in the court of law. This seems racially motivated and if a white artist were in the same situation he may never have been questioned. Taking Young Thug’s lyrics literally and using them against him is a crime itself in the art world. His free speech has not been taken away, rather his art is being used against him. In the future this could censor his lyrics and contribute to the decline of his music.

  13. Great article! I liked what you mentioned at the end about there being a bias in what kind of genre of lyrics are used in court with rap being the clear outlier while other genres, clearly talk about dark topics that are often ignored. Yet, I do think about the recent murders of rappers (Migos’s Takeoff, Young Dolph, PNB Rock, etc) and how lyrics in certain, not necessarily by these rappers, can reflect on ways they were killed. While I don’t think it should be used as evidence in political cases, it does make me question lyrics in general and how much harm they can cause.

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