Killer Beats: Can Rap Lyrics Be Used in Court?
You don’t need to be a fan of rap music to know that typical rap lyrics involve some element of storytelling. Depending on the social history of the rapper, the lyrics may seek to add rhyme and reason to otherwise illicit and violent surroundings that are not typical of mainstream America.
While any artistic genre can claim to be focused on storytelling in a unique and personal way, only rap has the street cred as a genre to claim that some of the stories told have been used as evidence against their authors in criminal cases.
For example, both Mac Dre and Snoop Dogg have had their lyrics used as evidence against them in a court of law. In those cases, prosecutors sought to show motive or demonstrate that certain lyrics were an admission. Interestingly enough, no one put Johnny Cash on trial for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. So how–and why–is rap different?
There is a strong argument to be made that rap isn’t fundamentally different in this regard. In some cases, juries don’t buy the evidence as representing an actual crime, and ultimately acquit the accused rapper. After all, rap is an art form, and as such, may be entirely fictional and not an autobiographical confession.
However, in a few more recent cases, prosecutors have built their cases almost solely around the rapper’s songs. For rappers who are less famous, the results have carried more serious consequences, including sentences of life in prison.
For evidence to be admissible, it must be relevant. Even then, it is subject to certain limitations, because we have deemed certain things to be too prejudicial or less reliable than others. Frighteningly, a prosecutor may not have too much of a challenge in admitting rap lyrics as evidence.
In the case of violent rap lyrics, a prosecutor to a murder case can argue that these lyrics are relevant because they are violent. He can also argue that the lyrics demonstrate the knowledge, motive, and intent to commit a murder. Rap lyrics will typically avoid any hearsay objections as a party admission.
This leaves defense attorneys to articulate how admitting these lyrics will confuse the jury as to the actual issues or substantially prejudice the defendant in some way. Objections can also be made regarding fictional, artistic, and protected speech. Sometimes the judge may agree.
In recent years, there has been an alarming trend in how often rap lyrics are used in court. This trend is more alarming when one considers that any other number of creative forms have yet to make their debut in a court of law. Perhaps the take away from this trend is that if you are going to express violent stories, you’d better write a novel or a country song.