A book titled, Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, explores this concept in-depth, as well as highlights cases for which rappers have faced prison sentences based on their own words misconstrued in favor of the prosecution. Moreover, this issue has become a mainstream concern as artists such as Meek Mill, Snoop Dogg, Boosie Badazz and former No Limit rapper Mac Phipps, among others have famously had song lyrics used almost as character witnesses in their trials.
“Police and prosecutors present [rap lyrics] to juries as autobiography rhymed over a beat — often with devastating consequences,” Rap on Trial co-authors, Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis write in their book.
The co-authors also entertain the idea that judges could stand to be educated on rap and hip-hop culture, although Nielson does contend that it wouldn’t be enough.
“So [prosecutors] cherry-pick a lyric that says, ‘I’m a drug kingpin. I sell huge amounts, kilos of cocaine,’ but this is in a courtroom where they have a public defender — like they’re clearly not wealthy," Neilson told Blavity. "If it was just a misunderstanding or a lack of education [on the judge's/prosecutor’s part], I feel like we could educate. Unfortunately, it does feel more nefarious than that.”
In recent years, cases where artists, particularly rappers, have had their song lyrics used against them on trial, have been highlighted. Such was the case with Phipps, who served 21 years in a Louisiana prison for a murder that another man confessed to shortly after Phipps’ arrest. Disregarding the man’s confession to proceed with charges against Phipps, the rising star claims he overheard the prosecutor refer to his rap lyrics saying something like, “yo, I have all of his lyrics right here.”
A puzzling thing for Phipps is trying to understand how choosing to pursue music, something legal, could be used against him.
“I began rapping because it was where I expressed myself and I saw it as a way out of my condition, and it was what I did for fun. It was my therapy, it was all of those things, and to actually see that thing that I love so much that was legal — we’re not talking about anything illegal, this was legal — and to see it being weaponized and used against me was weird,” Phipps told Blavity. “It was appalling, and what was even more appalling was that it was improperly used against me.”
Phipps said lyrics from two combined songs were used to vilify him on trial.
“Two different songs were mischievously tied together to present what would appear to a jury as a unified message,” Phipps said. “How the DA was able to, unfortunately, successfully do it, was under the guise that rather than using it as actual evidence, he alluded to this idea that he was using it to establish my character. And under that guise, it was allowed to be used. I think it overwhelmingly prejudiced the jury against me in that way.”