Using rap songs as evidence in criminal cases can miss the punchline

Should an artist’s words be used against them? Soul Food Cypher's executive director examines the issue of using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.

Using rap songs as evidence in criminal cases can miss the punchline

Illustration by Khoa Tran; Jeffrey Lamar WIlliams: Getty/ Michael Tullberg; YSL Necklace: Getty/Prince Williams

My favorite part of a rap record is a good punchline. The best punches catch you off guard, leaving you laughing or crying so much that you literally feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. I love that even after 12 years of serving as the founding executive director of Soul Food Cypher, a nonprofit that connects and builds communities through freestyle rap, I still get this feeling.

Rappers are more than entertainers. They are artists who can paint a picture with just words. I’ve met rappers who “paint with light” like Ansel Adams, showcasing the beauty of their landscapes in photographic detail. I’ve met others who “paint with shadow,” depicting their struggles and traumas with dark hues, like the tar in a Theaster Gates painting. Rappers give voice to the Black experience, and intimately express the dualities—or, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, the double consciousness—of being a Black American.

Rap music is a uniquely Black art form, and its proliferation is intricately linked with the freedom of speech that the First Amendment protects. For a people who have had everything stolen—language, culture, freedom—this ability to express ourselves has been crucial to our identity, survival, and liberation. That is why I am deeply troubled by the implications of the use of this art form as evidence in criminal trials. Equally troubling is how these guaranteed freedoms can exploit for financial gain the very same communities and craft I care so deeply about.

The two sides of this proverbial coin are symbolic of the double consciousness rappers face. The justice system, like the entertainment industry, can be a dirty game. Winners and losers can be decided as if by the flip of a coin.

So, your call: Heads or tails?

Painted as the head of a criminal enterprise by prosecutors, Jeffery Lamar Williams, better known as Atlanta rapper Young Thug, and 28 other individuals associated with the YSL label (or gang, depending on whom you ask) are on trial after a RICO indictment that includes charges of murder. Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville ruled that Young Thug’s rap lyrics could be used as evidence. In the hip-hop community, this decision was deeply alarming.

The use of rap lyrics in court cases has historically leaned on stereotypes, biases, and racism. Rarely does the jury selected represent true peers. If the jury cannot contextualize the art form and culture, they miss the “punchline”—and the emcee is left down for the count.

For rap artist Mac Phipps, it was 30 years.

Back in the 1990s, Phipps was an up-and-coming rapper. On February 21, 2000, he was scheduled to perform at a concert in Louisiana. Prior to the start, a fight broke out and a man was killed. A security guard confessed to mistakenly shooting the victim in self-defense, yet Phipps was still tried for murder. Although the prosecutors weren’t able to provide physical evidence, the judge allowed Phipps’s song “Murda Murda, Kill Kill” to be used in the trial. The all-White jury convicted Phipps of manslaughter.

In 2021, Phipps was granted clemency by then Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, but only after he’d served more than 20 years for a crime he did not commit.

One of the great ironies of this case was that Phipps did not originally record hyperviolent material—he had only recently changed his subject matter and image to increase his marketing appeal. This fact brings up the troubling flip side of the coin, and exposes some uncomfortable truths.

Russ, another rapper who launched out of Atlanta and who identifies as White, said in an interview on the Flagrant podcast: “What I think people should really be looking into is White people’s fascination with Black trauma . . . rappers are the new action heroes to White people. But to Black America, rappers are speaking to [their] trauma, and it lands for [them] . . . The main consumer, the main ticket buyer of rap is a White boy . . . [They] are there not because the content lands . . . they’re there because they get to watch ‘John Wick’ up close . . . Meanwhile, ‘John Wick’ is on stage [saying], ‘This is real trauma’ . . . The whole attractiveness of rap is that it is ‘real.’”

On social media platforms, rap conflict and rappers’ deaths have become gamified. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry devoted to covering the deadly conflicts of “drill rap.” Drill rappers have made music broadcasting their gang affiliations and literal exploits, and even mocked the deaths of their rivals on record, which ultimately leads to more violence. In the same interview, Russ states, “White people are fascinated with Black trauma because it’s exciting to them, because it’s ‘over there.’ They can get close enough to experience it . . . but when it gets a little bit too real, they go home. They can participate from a distance.”

This hits on the fact that much of this content is exploited for profit by bloggers, who can commentate from the safety of their digital devices. In this dynamic, rappers have become like avatars or video game characters. But these are real Black lives lost. Most of them are from the most vulnerable parts of society and victims of systemic oppression that keeps these vicious cycles in place.

While I don’t believe lyrics should be the sole evidence in a case (such as the Phipps prosecution), there are some rappers who will rap about literal violence, and that is egregious. In those cases, prosecutors should still rely not just on their lyrics but on other evidence, especially physical. U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District is one of the main sponsors of a proposed law that would bar the use of lyrics in federal criminal and civil cases, unless it can be shown that the artistic expression was intended to be taken as truth.

I am a believer in the power of words and speech. I believe rappers should take accountability for their lyrics. Two of Soul Food Cypher’s core values are respect and responsibility. Emcees do bear responsibility for their words and actions. This does not mean, however, that their words should be used to paint a picture of them out of context.

Every rapper’s lyrics should be cross-examined with empathy to explore this country’s inequities and examine the real disparities that exist. We live in a country, however, where rap lyrics are used to prosecute individuals, rather than examine the systems of oppression. We live in a society where it’s more profitable to feed the prison industrial complex than to create more equitable communities. We live in a society that proliferates violent rap music to justify the policing of Black bodies and the inhumane treatment of Black people for centuries, rather than addressing its cognitive dissonance—that the Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal,” was written by enslavers.

But rappers are all too familiar with the double consciousness. In the immortal words of a Bankhead prophet, Shawty Lo: “Well God damn, it must be two sides!”

Alex Acosta, artist and producer, is the founding executive director of Soul Food Cypher, an Atlanta nonprofit that utilizes freestyle rap and lyricism to transform individuals and communities through cypher events, workshops, and performances. Soul Food Cypher showcases freestyle as a legitimate art form to change the negative rap of rap music. 

This article appears in our May 2024 issue.