Very happy that CBS This Morning did a segment today featuring our work on the use of rap lyrics as evidence. For the last few months, media focus has been on a NJ Supreme Court case (State v. Vonte Skinner) involving the admissibility of rap lyrics, but our hope is that, moving forward, we can draw attention to the hundreds of other cases that have essentially criminalized rap music. That’s certainly our goal as we push ahead with our scholarship.
In our latest effort to draw attention to the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court, Charis Kubrin and I published this op-ed in the LA Times. Here we provide a national context but focus on the important role California has had in opening the door for the prosecution of rap. Our research is revealing jaw-dropping numbers of cases in the Golden State, and in this piece we begin to explain why.
I get calls from defense attorneys on a regular basis with rapper-clients whose music is being used against them in court. Always a good bet that attorney is calling from California…
Also, a great piece on the use of rap lyrics just went up at The Root. It’s written by Prof. Emmett Price, whose broad musical knowledge makes his perspective especially valuable in these discussions.
I’ve been waiting for this story to go live for weeks now, and it just made the front page of the NY Times. This is the first major piece in the mainstream media on the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials, and also the first to give a real sense of how pervasive the practice has become. Charis Kubrinand I worked with the story’s author, Lorne Manly, throughout the process, and we’re both really pleased with how it turned out.
A big thank you to the NY Times for seeing the importance of this issue and devoting significant resources to covering it. Also a shout out to Lorne Manly, who nailed this piece!
For people who want even more information on the topic, Charis and I just published our first article on this–called “Rap on Trial”–in Race and Justice. The official published version is available on the journal’s website, but the pre-production version is posted (for free) at SSRN. I’d also recommend Andrea Dennis’s seminal article, which I’ve posted here more than once.
Yesterday, my latest piece, “Where Did All The Female Rappers Go?” went live at NPR. In this one, I look at the significant decline of women in mainstream rap music and consider some of the reasons for it. I was fortunate enough to interview hip hop pioneer MC Lyte, who was very candid about her disappointment in the current industry climate for women.
The piece ends with the upside: the “underground.” I’ve been listening to a lot of women who are far more talented than many of the artists (e.g., 2 Chainz, Waka Flocka Flame) who are on major labels. There are a number of really skilled MCs out there, but check out Awkwafina, Ruby Ibarra, Nitty Scott MC, and Gifted Gab for some different styles.
When Charis Kubrin and I wrote our op-ed for the New York Times on the use of rap lyrics in trials, we knew it would get attention, but had no idea how much. Over the last week, we’ve been giving 2-3 interviews a day, and media outlets across the world have been reporting on this issue. I am gratified to see that this issue is getting international attention, and I hope this is the beginning of a broader conversation about an ongoing injustice in our court system.
Here’s a sampling of the coverage so far:
Charis and I were on this HuffPost Live panel with Georgetown law professor Paul Butler and Lehigh professor James Peterson to discuss rap lyrics as evidence:
Vibe Magazine published this video that highlights our op-ed and asks larger questions about the use of rap as evidence:
The WGBH show Basic Black did this segment on our op-ed. A really great discussion by a distinguished group of scholars from the Boston area (a special shout out to Prof. Emmett Price for his support and encouragement):
Here’s an interview I gave on rap-as-evidence to the CBC radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi:
Meanwhile, here’s an interview Charis Kubrin gave on the same topic to NPR’s On the Media:
This is just a small sampling of the coverage, and more is to come. The question now is how to turn this exposure into action…stay tuned.
In this op-ed for the New York Times, Charis Kubrin and I use the upcoming NJ Supreme Court case State v. Vonte Skinner as our point of departure for a broader discussion of the (mis)use of rap music to put people in prison. We recently completed an academic article on the subject, and we hope to draw attention to this issue in the coming months.
Two weeks ago, I testified as an expert witness for the defense in the People of the State of California v. Alex Joseph Medina. Medina is being charged with first degree murder, and although he was only 14 when he allegedly committed the crime, he is being charged as an adult and faces life without parole if found guilty. I was called to testify because prosecutors introduced a number of his “gangsta” rap lyrics as evidence at the trial, arguing that they should be read as “journals” or real-life chronicles of his behavior. (Coverage of the case can be found here and here. The Ventura County Star did this piece on my testimony.)
Of course this treatment of rap music is absurd, something I spent the entire day on the stand trying to explain. And yet, as I’ve pointed out a number of times (including on this blog), this is an increasingly common prosecutorial tactic: treat rap lyrics as literal evidence so that their authors (almost always young men of color) look like vicious criminals in front of a jury. It’s so common, in fact, that I am serving as an expert in two other cases, both of them scheduled for trial in the spring.
Right now, I’m in the middle of working on an article with Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine who has also served as an expert witness in more than one of these cases. We’re hoping that our work will help shed light on the pervasive use of art to put people in prison.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the NJ Supreme Court, which is set to hear a case on exactly this issue. The ACLU of New Jersey filed this amicus brief, which provides valuable context for the upcoming Supreme Court case.
I wrote this piece for The Atlantic and it went live yesterday afternoon. Unlike many of my other articles, this is one that asks as many questions as it answers. In particular, I am interested in whether the decline of sample-based hip hop, which was weakened by ridiculous copyright rules, was at least partly responsible for the concomitant decline in socially conscious mainstream rap. (Not dealing with the “underground” here, where artists like Immortal Technique, dead prez, Jasiri X, Rebel Diaz, Brother Ali, and others are clearly doing political work with their music.) My idea is that sampling provided a crucial connection to a musical and political past, reminding rappers and audiences alike that they were part of a broader creative tradition. Without this mindset–the sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself–I wonder if it’s easier to revel in mindless self-aggrandizement the way many mainstream rappers do.
I’ve already gotten a lot of feedback on this, almost all positive. However, some people have accused me of trashing today’s music based on my old-person nostalgia for “golden age” rap. There might be a grain (just one) of truth to that. But at least I’ve got good people backing me up–I interviewed legendary producers Hank Shocklee (of the Bomb Squad) and Pete Rock for this.
I just did this interview with Sean Moncrieff at Dublin, Ireland’s Newstalk Radio about graffiti culture, politics, and contemporary rap music. I enjoyed the interview and was grateful for the chance to continue to draw attention to the 30-year-old murder of artist Michael Stewart.
I just wrote this piece for NPR on the murder of Michael Stewart, an aspiring artist and model who was beaten to death by NY Transit Police exactly 30 years ago. His crime? He was supposedly tagging a subway station wall. The story includes the horrific details of his death, the injustice that followed, and a broader discussion of hip hop and policing. I end with the words of his mother, whom I reluctantly contacted (afraid I’d stir up emotions she wanted left alone). I promised her I’d do my best to get her son’s story out there, and this is the beginning…
Erik Nielson is Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Richmond, where his research and teaching focus on hip hop culture and African American literature. He lives in Richmond, VA and Brooklyn, NY.