Next week, the Supreme Court of New Jersey will hear a case that could help decide just that. At issue is a prosecutor’s extensive use of rap lyrics, composed by a man named Vonte Skinner, as evidence of his involvement in a 2005 shooting.
During Mr. Skinner’s trail in 2008, the prosecutor, read the jury 13 pages of violent lyrics written by Mr. Skinner, even though all of the lyrics were composed before the shooting (in some cases, years before) and none of them mentioned the victim or specific details about the crime.
The lyrics read like an ode to violent street life, with lines like “In the hood, I am a threat/It’s written on my arm and signed in blood on my Tech” – a reference to a Tec-9 handgun. “I’m in love with you, death.”
The other evidence against Mr. Skinner was largely testimony from witnesses who changed their stories multiple times. And yet the jury found him guilty of attempted murder, and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In 2012, the conviction was overturned by an appellate court that ruled that the lyrics should never have been admitted as evidence. The majority opinion stated, “We have a significant about whether the jurors would have found the defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics.” The state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Rap lyrics and videos are turning up as evidence in courtrooms across the country with alarming regularity. Last year, The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that in 18 cases in which various courts considered the admissibility of rap as evidence, the lyrics were allowed nearly 80 percent of the time.
As expert witnesses who have testified in such cases, we have observed first hand how prosecutors misrepresent rap music to judges and juries, who rarely understand the genre conventions of gangsta rap or the industry forces that drive aspiring rappers to adopt this style. One common tactic is to present a defendant’s rap as autobiography. Even when defendants use a stage name to signal their creation of a fictional first-person narrator, rap about exploits that are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, and make use of figurative language, prosecutors will insist that the lyrics are effectively rhymed confessions. No other form of fictional expression is exploited this way in the courts.
Admittedly, the complex and creative manipulation of identity in rap helps account for its treatment in court. Many rappers remain in character long after they leave the recording studio, trying to establish their authenticity by convincing their listeners that they live the lives they rap about which is mainly used for marketing purposes.
A study conducted in the late 1990s by Stuart Fischoff, a psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles measured the impact of gansta rap lyrics on jurors. Participants were given basic biographical information about a hypothetical 18-year-old black male, but only some were shown a set of his violent, sexually explicit rap lyrics. Those who read the lyrics were significantly more likely to believe the man was capable of committing a murder than those who did not.
In anticipation of Mr. Skinner’s case, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed an amicus brief arguing that rap lyrics, however unsavory they might be, are “artistic expressions entitled to constitutional protection.”