Rhyme and Punishment

Prosecutors are using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. That needs to stop.

Chuck D, Mick Jagger
Black music has disproportionately suffered the scourge of literalism.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

One of the most famous descriptions of hip-hop comes from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who once characterized rap music as “the black CNN.” It’s a very cool quote from a very smart man that is also entirely untrue. Rap is not the news, rappers are not journalists, hip-hop is not an archive of literal truths. This isn’t something that should have to be explained in 2014. It shouldn’t have had to be explained in 1979 when a man called Big Bank Hank claimed to have stolen Superman’s girlfriend on the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” nor should it have had to be explained in 1991 when a 17-year-old Nas bragged about murdering Jesus Christ and kidnapping Barbara Bush on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque.” If you think rap music is real you shouldn’t be listening to it, nor should you be driving, voting, reading Slate, or doing much else besides enjoying the remainder of your time in elementary school.

And yet, a recent New York Times article sheds light on a growing and deeply disturbing practice of using lyrics by aspiring rappers as evidence for the prosecution in criminal trials. The article focuses primarily on charges facing Antwain Steward of Virginia, who is currently standing trial for two counts of murder largely on the basis of lyrics that allegedly refer to a 2007 homicide. (Prior to his arrest, Steward had achieved regional success performing under the handle Twain Gotti.) The Times alludes to nearly 40 other instances of prosecutors introducing lyrics as evidence against defendants, and Slate’s own Justin Peters has covered the phenomenon extensively. “Just because you put your confession to music doesn’t give you a free pass,” declares a former prosecutor, a statement that might belong in a negative review of a Drake album but absolutely nowhere else.

People—all people—have a right to make art. They have a right to make good art and a right to make bad art, and other people have a right to judge the content and quality of that art. I enjoy the music of a rapper called Gunplay, who’s had brushes with the law himself and often raps about exactly what you think someone called Gunplay would rap about; if you listen to Gunplay’s music and decide it’s not for you, if you’re aesthetically or morally offended by it, that’s your prerogative. If you listen to Gunplay’s music and decide that he belongs in jail because of it, you should not be allowed anywhere near the American judicial system. Creative expression has a right to exist and to be judged without being taken literally, let alone being turned into a referendum on whether a person should be incarcerated, or worse.

Back in the days of “gangsta rap”—a hopelessly dated term that somehow still circulates in contexts like these, including the Times article—rap had a literalism problem, which is to say that people had a literalism problem with rap. The FBI went after N.W.A., George Bush went after Ice-T, C. Delores Tucker went after the record industry, then the NAACP, then finally a deceased Tupac Shakur. Since this period it’s become common to defend rap against such criticism by pointing out that we don’t subject white artists to this particularly idiotic sort of scrutiny: No one thinks Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, the story goes. Mick Jagger has confessed in song to domestic abuse, statutory rape, heroin possession, serial murder, regicide, and human trafficking (to name just a few); we’ve never suggested arresting him.

This isn’t entirely accurate. In the aftermath of Meredith Hunter’s murder at the infamous free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969, numerous observers, including San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph J. Gleason and Bay Area concert promoter Bill Graham, suggested Jagger and the band were responsible for Hunter’s death. Rolling Stone adorned its 16-page cover story on Hunter’s murder by a member of the Hells Angels with the title “Let It Bleed”—the title of an album the Stones had released in the week prior to the concert—and salaciously (and erroneously) claimed that the band had been playing “Sympathy for the Devil” at the time of the killing. While much of the recriminations focused on the abysmal organization of the concert, the Rolling Stones’ music was absolutely used to insinuate the band’s complicity in Hunter’s murder, in the court of opinion if not the court of law. For more recent examples see the panic over heavy-metal-assisted suicide in the 1980s, or the fixation on KMFDM and Rammstein in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings.

But there’s no question that black music has disproportionately suffered the scourge of literalism in a country that has so frequently and fearfully disavowed the complexities of both black people and black art. Richard Penniman will ball your daughter Molly, shortly before Christopher Wallace shepherds her off to a Brooklyn basement. Racism is steeped in this sort of fear and also in ignorance so narcissistic that we project it onto others. Black music has often been taken literally because doing so confirmed fears among the kind of people who wanted their fears confirmed, and also because denying its figurativeness was a convenient way of denying its intellect.

Rap in particular has often fallen victim to this, emerging as it did into a country that had come to believe in things like the Moynihan Report and the Silent Majority and Reaganomics, where the conditions of poverty were blamed not on the systems that created them but on the people who lived in them (stop me when this sounds familiar). In the 1980s rap became the sonic marker of an underclass that much of America wished to shrug away, and it was easier to put fingers in ears and stickers on cassette tapes than to put money into classrooms or bring jobs into neighborhoods or take guns off the street. The worst part about the “won’t somebody think of the children” crowd is that it’s always only certain children they’re thinking of.

There are a lot of reasons (some) rappers rap about crime. For starters, crime is interesting. And if you come from a background where crime is a common occurrence, which many (but certainly not all) rappers do, you might be inclined to draw from that. Jay Z’s “D’Evils” surely takes inspiration from his hustler past, but the song isn’t really about selling drugs, it’s about paranoia, guilt, moral uncertainty, crumbling relationships. It’s a song about people.

And sometimes life really does imitate art, in rap and elsewhere: The Wikipedia entry for Norwegian black-metal pioneer Varg Vikernes reads like a season of True Detective, and when former No Limit Soldier C-Murder received a life sentence for murder a few years back, the jokes unfortunately wrote themselves. But the vast majority of the time life doesn’t imitate art. (I mean, can you even imagine?) Detroit proto-punk band Death, Metallica’s 1983 album Kill ’Em All, and 1990s hair-metal balladeers Slaughter are responsible for zero homicides between them, even if this should count for at least a misdemeanor.

Rap as a whole probably is too violent, and the music boasts an illustrious tradition of shock-peddlers—from Eazy-E to Eminem to Tyler, the Creator—whose music has ranged from brilliant to reprehensible, sometimes within the same song. But a lot of other things are also too violent, most notably the actual world, where we all live. That world is, as the great fabulist Rick Ross would have it, deeper than rap, and allowing people to make art that represents or critiques or celebrates it, that elaborates or exaggerates it or even invents an entirely other world altogether, feels like a baseline act of human generosity. Treating music as documentary fact is certainly a travesty of justice, but it’s also a grotesque failure of imagination and empathy. Art isn’t real life, and that’s the whole point: It’s better.