10-15 years ago, hip-hop heads like myself used to joke about your rap lyrics being admissible as evidence in a court of law. When I wrote about this in my column in On The Go Magazine, of course, many laughed it off as if seemed to be so far-fetched. With all the braggadocio bars being spit while rappers live out their gangsta fantasies a court being able to use the lyrics in court seemed at best laughable.
For myself, while I had not thought about this in years it became not so far-fetched when I was called into court as an expert witness a few weeks ago. That once humorous column became very real when the words in the first lines in your Miranda Rights; “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” now extends to hip-hop lyrics. When I was asked to explain and be sort of a ghetto tour guide through the history of hip-hop and freestyle rhymes in Westchester County Court, in White Plains, NY on MLK Blvd, I couldn’t help but recall the old column where we thought this was funny.
The most ironic thing in this whole scenario was it wasn’t the lyrics on the young man who was on trial for murder, but his brother’s rap lyrics. When you are read your Miranda Rights they tell you that YOU have the right to remain silent and anything YOU say can and will be used against YOU… but what about what you have said previously like in a freestyle rhyme or in songs lyrics previous, added to the reading of your Miranda Rights.
Doesn’t this fall under the first amendment, you might be asking yourself? But BLACK SPEECH, first amendment notwithstanding, BLACK SPEECH has never been free for Blacks in America. From the days of slavery, when many southern colonies and states outlawed literacy among the slaves. During the Jim Crown era where the FBI monitored the speech of Civil Rights leaders like Dr, Martin Luther King Jr., especially when they spoke up against White Order. Even the 44th President, Barack Obama had to tightly monitor his speech that could be perceived as rhetoric when it came to race.
It’s the same now when it comes to rap lyrics especially by Black Artists. I would not have been called to court if we were talking about how many times Eminem killed, kidnapped and harmed his baby mother/ wife Kim Scott Mathers and his own mother for that matter, in addition to a string of other violent murders. NO OTHER FICTIONAL FORM, musical, literary or cinematic is singled out as admissible as evidence in court.
On Monday, August 4, 2014, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that rap lyrics can not be used as evidence unless they include a strong nexus to the crime in question, in the case of Vonte Skinner who was convicted of attempted murder in New Jersey in 2008. Violent lyrics that Skinner had written years in advance of the crime figured heavily in his trial.
In the opinion written by Justice Jayvee LeVecchia, the Supreme Court noted that rap lyrics, even depicting acts of violence aren’t a crime. The court also said that the reading of the lyrics in court risked poisoning the jury against Skinner
“One would not presume that Bob Marley who wrote the well-known song “I Shot The Sheff,” actually shot a sheriff or that Edgar Allen Poe buried a man beneath his floorboard as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artist endeavors on those subjects. Skinner’s lyrics should receive no different treatment,” LeVecchia wrote.
What struck me was Rahsi McLean (27) from Mount Vernon who was found not guilty of all charges in the 2011 death of 28-year-old Gloria Nartey, Tuesday, May 16th in Westchester County Court, was about to be a victim of the system. It’s one thing to attempt to make a case to hold someone accountable for their own lyrics, but it is reaching by any stretch of the imagination to admit into evidence the rap lyrics of his brother.
They had a white expert, I noted he looked like he could have been a Hip-Hop Cop, who I later found out worked for the District Attorney’s office as their expert of everything urban; hip-hop, rap lyrics, freestyle rhymes, street gangs etc. He basically listened to two of the brother’s Freestyle Friday YouTube videos and wrote a transcript of what the lyrics said and what they meant. Several of the interpretations were incorrect, to say the least. In one of the video, he explained that the lyrics meant we killing all the witnesses who testify against my brother. The interpretation was incorrect and I begin to explain what the lyrics actually said and meant.
I had to explain just because the brother who calls himself Mafe or M. Dot used the word gang when referring to his group of associates and media production group, that isn’t uncommon in hip-hop to use words like Gang (Sugar Hill Gang), posse, mafia, clan, cartel and various other words to describe their clique or their crew and it wasn’t an admission that they were a street gang, although they come from an area, Southside of Mount Vernon where many Street Gangs rule and by the way where I live as well and have never been affiliated with any street gang. I also explained the NYPD are often referred to by themselves and by others as the world biggest gang, sometimes.
While I know this was a murder trial, the four-and-a-half hours I was on the stand, (most of that being cross-examined by a white ADA who desperately tried hard to twist my words) I couldn’t help feel Hip-Hop and rap lyrics were on trial. And while 15 years ago I wrote in what was meant to be a comical column, ‘Rappers Watch What You Say, You Words May and Can Be Used Against You In A Court Of Law,’ I have to seriously say now it’s no longer a joke, more and more this is exactly what is happening and lyrics are getting DA’s convictions.
This has been going on all across the nation little by little for over a decade with very little press coverage and trusts me, I believe this is just the beginning! We have been inching closer and closer to this day since the FBI sent a letter to NWA for their song F*@K Tha Police, in the late 80’s. While we do have the right to say what we feel and like I told those in court that day, they better be glad we have hip-hop to express ourselves in matters of police brutality, racism and other things that infest the black community, so we are not acting it out in real life.
I will be putting together a panel on our radio show People Before Politics to discuss this in much more details soon. I want to close by saying when the District Attorney in Westchester County starts calling experts to break down rap lyrics of a suspect, this can happen in AnyHood, USA. And while this is a whole different topic, social media is also being used against you in a court of law, so be careful what you post on Facebook and IG, and what you tweet. Your words can and will be used against you. REAL TALK!!!!
AJ Woodson is the Editor-In-Chief of Black Westchester and Co-Owner of Urban Soul Media Group, the parent company, Host & Producer of the People Before Politics Radio Show. AJ is a Father, Brother, An Author, Journalism Fellow (Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism), Hip-Hop Artist - one third of the legendary underground rap group JVC FORCE known for the single Strong Island, Radio Personality, Hip-Hop Historian, Documentarian, Activist, Criminal Justice Advocate and Freelance Journalist whose byline has appeared in several print publications and online sites including The Source, Vibe, the Village Voice, Upscale, Sonicnet.com, Launch.com, Rolling Out Newspaper, Daily Challenge Newspaper, Spiritual Minded Magazine, Word Up! Magazine, On The Go Magazine and several others.