Federal judge rejects use of rap lyrics as evidence

On December 9, 2022, a federal magistrate judge in Arizona issued a 101-page opinion rejecting the use of rap lyrics as evidence.  His opinion, which is by far the best and most thorough I’ve ever seen, eviscerates, step by step, the state’s contention that the lyrics are probative and not unduly prejudicial:  “The Court concludes that the danger of unfair prejudice and the risk of misleading and confusing the jury that will result from the admission of the rap video and songs substantially outweighs the probative value of this evidence.”

Update: On March 24, 2023, district court judge James A. Soto adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendations in their entirety.

Click here to read the magistrate’s report in all its glory.  And click here to read the district court judge’s ruling that the magistrate’s recommendations will be fully adopted.

Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America


It’s one thing to know your book is coming out, but it’s quite another to hold it in your hands.  The book doesn’t officially drop until Nov. 12, but last night, I got the advance print copies, and they look great.

More important, we’ve gotten some very positive early reviews from some of the top scholars and legal practitioners in the country:

  • Rap on Trial offers captivating insight on how police, prosecutors, and judges silence and penalize Black music artists. It provides not only a rousing call to action but also a compelling blueprint for necessary change.”—Michelle Alexander
  • “By highlighting race in this brilliant, well-researched argument, Rap on Trial takes its rightful place within the pantheon of groundbreaking works that unmask the built-in biases of our legal systems.”—Michael Eric Dyson
  • “An illuminating, powerful, and disturbing exposé of how hip hop’s often raw, fantastical lyrics are taken out of context to criminalize black and brown youth.”—Robin D.G. Kelley
  • “An exceptional, nuanced look at how the state transformed an influential art form into a tool of mass incarceration.”—Anthony D. Romero 
  • “Nielson and Dennis have blessed us with a smart and engaging book that will make readers mad as hell. An essential read for activists, artists, hip hop heads, and all concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, Rap on Trial does it ‘for the culture.’” —Paul Butler

Sadly, as more and more rappers  find themselves punished for their lyrics–the ongoing Drakeo saga is a prime example–this book is more relevant than ever.  Our hope is that our efforts will help raise awareness…and eventually put an end to rap on trial.

A lot of people supported us with this, but Michael Render (aka Killer Mike) gets his own shout out.  He not only wrote the Foreword to the book, but he continues to use his platform to help us end this unfair practice.

(Thanks to Keith Plummer, husband of co-author Andrea Dennis, for this picture!)

Rap on Trial

I am excited to announce that my next book, titled Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, will be out on New Press in November of this year.  This book, which I coauthored with Andrea Dennis (University of Georgia), offers the first in-depth look at the (mis)use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.  Drawing on the 50+ cases I’ve worked on–as well as the hundreds that Andrea and I have identified across the country–we look at the history of the practice, the reasons for its growth, and the frightening ramifications for young men who are increasingly being incarcerated for their music.

Early responses from readers have been very encouraging, and we are hopeful that the book will spark a much-needed conversation about the relationship between race, art, and the American criminal justice system.

A major thank you to Michael Render (aka Killer Mike), who wrote the Foreword to the book and continues to be a prominent voice in the effort to expose rap on trial.

If We Silence Hate Speech, Will We Silence Resistance?

I recently wrote this op-ed for the New York Times to explore the unintended consequences of silencing “hate” speech.

Over the last couple of years–especially since the election of Donald Trump–more and more self-described progressives are calling for limits to speech they find offensive.  My argument here is that although those limits might be intended for white supremacists, they are more likely to be used to silence radical expression, particularly among people of color.  History offers countless examples…

In any case, in the interest of encouraging all perspectives on this issue, even perspectives I disagree with, here is a response to my piece from the Anti-Defamation League.

Mad Skillz and U of R

Rapper Mad Skillz to be artist in residence at University of Richmond

I am very excited to announce that Richmond hip hop artist Donnie Lewis (aka Mad Skillz) will be joining the University as an Artist-in-Residence with the School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS).  Skillz is widely recognized for putting Richmond on the hip hop map–he’s worked with heavyweights such as Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Nas, Timbaland, Will Smith, Missy Elliot, Cee Lo, and many others.  As it turns out, he got his start–and his rap monicker–while rapping at the University’s radio station a couple of decades ago.

This spring, he and I will be teaching a course called “The Voice of Hip Hop in America.”  It will be open to a limited number of students from Arts & Sciences, and fully open to the University’s evening students.  We will have some surprises in store for these students…

For more on Mad Skillz’ role at the University, here’s a recent piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch.  Expect more media attention in the coming weeks!

Keeping rap lyrics out of court

MurilloThis is my latest piece at Rolling Stone.  Here I begin with the case of Anthony Murillo, a California high school student who was prosecuted for writing a rap song that, according to authorities, was a threat.  I testified as an expert witness for the defense, and in a rare victory in cases like this, he was found not guilty.  As I have written many times in the past, most defendants whose rap lyrics are used as evidence against them are not so lucky.   Here I consider a number of the reasons why.

As I mention in this article, I am now working with University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis to gather data on these cases. In the fall of 2016, we each had student research teams helping us, and they generated some truly impressive research.  Here at the University of Richmond, the team was comprised of Lisa Cheney, Tracy Ellerman, Zach Grossfeld, Dean Liverman, and Laini Marshall.   Their work was invaluable, so in the fall of 2017, I will be putting together another team of students to continue learning about–and drawing attention to–the disturbing use of an art form to put people in prison.

Marijuana reform and inequality


I just wrote this piece for Rolling Stone with friend and sometimes-collaborator Killer Mike.  In it, we look at the way marijuana legalization (in 28 states plus DC) has created a major industry, but also one that is leaving behind people of color.  As we note, black and Hispanic men have paid a steep price for marijuana prohibition (and the drug war generally) and so it’s particularly unjust to exclude them from the profits associated with legalization.

There are a number of ways to make marijuana reform more inclusive.  Here we focus on the need for states to allow people with convictions for nonviolent drug crimes to own and operate marijuana dispensaries.  In most states, they can’t–and that perpetuates the inequalities that have characterized marijuana laws for decades.

Back to the Supreme Court–with help this time

TI Mike Big Boi

Last year, I was lead author of an amicus brief on rap music for the U.S. Supreme Court (in Elonis v. U.S.).  I have written another brief for the Court, also on rap, but this time with some additional help from Travis Gosa (Cornell) and Michael Render, aka Killer Mike, among others.

The brief, which was filed this evening (Dec. 21), is posted here.

It is written in support of Taylor Bell, a Mississippi high school student who was suspended for recording a rap song that called out two coaches for sexual misconduct (accusations that the school has not denied).  For more information, check out Adam Liptak’s piece in the New York Times, which focuses on our brief but also provides important background and context.

In addition to having Killer Mike as an author, we were also (thanks in large part to Mike’s efforts) able to get a wide range of artists and scholars to lend their name and support to the brief.  Among the most notable are T.I. and Big Boi, two of the biggest names in rap.  They deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to stand up for a young man who was unfairly punished for using his art to address an injustice, as do the many others who signed onto our brief.

Hopefully, this will help convince the Court to hear Bell’s case and in the process show that when hip hop artists stand up for a cause, people listen.

The Hip Hop & Obama Reader


After three years of working on it, Travis Gosa (Cornell University) and I have published our first book, The Hip Hop & Obama Readeron Oxford University Press.  This volume features original contributions from some of the country’s leading scholars and activists, who offer new perspectives on hip hop’s role in political mobilization, community organizing, and voter turnout during the Obama era and beyond.  They also consider the way Obama’s presidency has (or hasn’t) been shaped by hip hop and, conversely, how hip hop has responded to Obama.

So far, the feedback has been excellent, with Michael Eric Dyson calling the book “superb” and “brilliant” and Emmett Price describing it as “an unparagoned mixtape (in written form) of brilliance by an all-star cast of Hip Hop thought leaders, activists, and scholars.”

The declining relationship between hip hop and Obama

Obama and Ludacris

My book (with Travis Gosa, Cornell University) on hip hop and politics–titled The Hip Hop & Obama Readerwill be published on Oxford University Press next month.

In anticipation of that, we just published this op-ed in The Washington Post on the declining relationship between hip hop artists/activists and the President.  We not only chart this decline and offer reasons for it, but we also consider the ramifications for the 2016 election.