I have served, or am currently serving, as an expert witness in five cases involving rap lyrics as evidence, and I have probably consulted on twenty others. In this op-ed for The Washington Post, I draw on that experience, as well as my research with Charis E. Kubrin, to consider the impact that Elonis v. U.S. could have on aspiring rappers, especially those who rely on social media to disseminate their work.
As I argue here, police are spending a surprising amount of time monitoring sites like YouTube and Facebook, often finding rap lyrics or videos that they (mis)interpret as evidence of a crime. The results can be disastrous for young artists who are in many cases using this music to escape a life of crime, not perpetuate one.
I have been using this blog primarily to draw attention to the widespread misuse of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings. To help get the word out–and get the music industry involved–I reached out to rapper and activist Killer Mike, and together we wrote this op-ed in USA Today. In it, we use the U.S. Supreme Court case Elonis v. U.S. as the backdrop for a discussion of the ways rap music is regularly, and unfairly, depicted as a threat to society.
In teaming up with Killer Mike, I’m not only working with one of the most important rappers in the game today (Run the Jewels 2, his collaboration with El-P, is regarded by many as the best rap album of the year), but also one of the most socially and politically active. He is using his growing platform to address some of the most pressing issues facing America today, in the process establishing himself as a leading public intellectual — as well as a guy who routinely kills the mike.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that just about every major music publication has covered this op-ed, helping us achieve even more visibility for an issue that is important to both of us.
More to come from me and Mike…
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Elonis v. U.S., a case involving rap lyrics that were prosecuted as threats. Today, the University of Florida’s Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project submitted this amicus brief to the Court, which I wrote along with Professors Clay Calvert and Charis Kubrin. In it, we argue that the complexities of rap, not to mention the negative reactions that it evokes in many people, make it susceptible to misinterpretation. It makes sense, therefore, that a speaker’s intent is crucial in determining what constitutes a real threat.
To any rap fan, this is basic common sense. In the legal system, unfortunately, common sense doesn’t always prevail.
Last night, PBS NewsHour ran a segment on a topic I’ve dedicated much of this blog to: the growing use of rap lyrics in criminal trials. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for the piece, and I’m especially happy to have been involved because of how well it turned out. I knew this story needed to be told visually to come alive, but also by a network that takes journalism seriously. I think the producers at PBS (shout out to William Brangham and Saskia DeMelker) nailed it.
It’s about 10 minutes long, and although there’s always more to say, I think this provides an excellent overview of the issue and a balanced look at differing perspectives. A big thanks to PBS for helping to keep this topic in the spotlight.
In May, I collaborated with Clay Calvert and Charis Kubrin on an op-ed for Forbes, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of Anthony Elonis, a man who was sent to prison for posting to Facebook menacing rap lyrics directed at his wife and an FBI agent. The Court agrees to hear arguments in only a tiny fraction of the cases submitted for consideration, so we were both surprised and excited when it agreed to hear Elonis v. U.S.
The case will focus on true threats jurisprudence–what criteria are required for speech to be considered a genuine threat–but Charis Kubrin and I just wrote an op-ed for CNN in which we argue that the Court should also use this case as an opportunity to address the growing, and disturbing, prosecution of rap lyrics. As we ask in the op-ed, if throwing people in jail for their art isn’t a true threat, what is?
Salon: Hip-hop scholar Erik Nielson works as an expert witness fighting
to keep rap out of the courtroom
When author and professor Andrew Cotto approached me about doing this interview for Salon related to my work on rap lyrics in criminal trials, I was both flattered and grateful for the continued attention to this issue. I am pleased with how it came out and hope it continues to put the spotlight on this disturbing use of art to put people in prison.
I’d also like to acknowledge the central role of Charis Kubrin in this research–we’ve been working together for almost a year now to make this part of a national conversation.
As this blog makes abundantly clear, I’ve been very interested in the (mis)use of rap lyrics as evidence in trials. As it turns out, there’s a case up for consideration by the Supreme Court–U.S. v. Elonis– that involves rap lyrics posted to Facebook that were prosecuted as “true threats.” I’ve just written this op-ed for Forbes, along with First Amendment expert Clay Calvert from the University of Florida and Charis Kubrin, my regular partner in crime on this rap-as-evidence topic. In it we argue that the Court should take up the case, not only because it deals with the prosecution of rap lyrics, but also because it offers an opportunity to provide much-needed guidance on “true threats” jurisprudence in the age of social media.
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 Kubrin and 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.