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June 30, 2014

Should rap lyrics be used as legal evidence of criminal activity?

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Rap lyrics are playing an increasingly prominent role as evidence in criminal cases nationwide, raising concern among legal scholars who question whether songs can be evidence of anything.

When police in Virginia were looking for leads in a double murder case, they thought they found one in the lyrics of rapper Antwain Steward, a.k.a “Twain Gotti.”

Although the lyrics of his song “Ride Out” describe a murder, the details such as the time of day and type of gun don’t match the crime, and Steward says the song is creative, not a confession.

Erik Nielson, a scholar of rap at the University of Richmond, argues that rap is an art form that reflects the communities where many young black men live. He says rappers are creating characters, not writing diaries.

“That is the most important distinction that constantly gets missed, is that there is an author and a narrator. We seem to be able to grasp that concept with every other art form that uses the first person narrative. But rappers, who go the extra mile to signal that they are inventing a narrator with their use of a stage name, we still revert back to this idea that they’re the same, we conflate the two,” he said.

However, former gang prosecutor David LaBahn defends using rap lyrics, “If it’s matching, that would very much be another piece of evidence that we would like to admit to the case, because we think it is relevant.”

In some cases, the connection between a rap and a crime is clear. In 2003, Dennis Greene brutally killed his wife, and then rapped specifically about committing the murder. The lyrics were introduced at trial, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In the end, Steward’s lyrics helped form the basis of the police’s investigation, but the prosecution decided not to play them to the jury and instead relied on two eyewitnesses who identified him four years after the fatal shooting. The jury found Steward not guilty of either murder, but guilty on a related weapons charge. He’ll be sentenced later this month.

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