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 fightingto keep rap out of the courtroom
When author and professorAndrew Cotto approached me about doing this interviewfor 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 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.
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.