Is hip-hop music on trial? Here's why so many rappers end up in court

Rap music's relationship with the judicial system is rocky, with lyrics sometimes leading to convictions for crimes artists didn't even commit.
Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 21, 2023

This year marks 50 years since hip-hop began, and today, one element of the genre seems to be on trial.

In recent years, many rappers — both mainstream artists and those in their mixtape era — are finding themselves in U.S. courtrooms being questioned over their lyrics, which prosecutors say are actual evidence of their crimes.

This isn't a new problem, and cases like this have been popping up for years.

Back in 2000, McKinley Phipps Jr., better known as Mac, was a rising star in Louisiana. That was before he was arrested for murder and sentenced to 30 years for a crime someone else confessed to. He was 22 years old, and the evidence against him was not physical; it was his own music. A song called "Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill" got the rapper a 30-year sentence. He was released on parole in 2021 after serving 21 years.

In 2017, Tommy Munsdwell Canady was just 17 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors in Wisconsin used lyrics from his 2014 song "I'm Out Here" to convict him of a murder that they said he alluded to on the track. Canady's defense pointed out the differences between the song and the crime, and the court even acknowledged them, on top of lacking proper physical evidence. But it was still enough to put him away. 

Emerging artists aren't the only ones affected. Most recently, rapper Young Thug's lyrics came up in court in a RICO case along with rapper Gunna.

In the last 30 years, researchers tracked more than 500 reported cases of prosecutors using lyrics as evidence against rappers in the last 30 years, and they think that's a lowball impacting Black and Brown artists the most.

These cases have led many performers and fans to call for increased protection and make lyrics inadmissible in court.

Experts argue that violence and crimes referenced in rap are usually just creative expressions and do not indicate a direct tie to crime.

"There's something in the Black neighborhood called the Dozens, where you try to make jokes about each other," said Prince Charles Alexander, a record producer. "That carried over into the rap tradition into what we call ciphers. When you're doing a rap cipher, you're actually rapping without music, so that braggadocio is not always true. Very often it is false hyperbole that's actually blowing something up and making more of it than what it actually is, and that's where the gray line is."

Alexander is a three-time Grammy award winning record producer and audio engineer whose resumé includes working alongside Mary J. Blige, Destiny's Child, Diddy, Biggie and Aretha Franklin. He's also a professor at the Berklee School of Music and spoke with Scripps News about what inspires the violence in rap music — a characteristic he says isn't unique to rap or even music overall.

California restricts use of rap lyrics as evidence in court

California restricts use of rap lyrics as evidence in court

Some people close to the hip-hop scene say this move will help decriminalize artistic expression and hopefully deemphasize lyrics about crime.


"When you look at any of the art forms that are trying to mirror the pathos of the human condition, you could draw any inference that you want from it," Alexander said. "Unfortunately because we live in a society that has been targeting the Black male for so long, the entertainment value of the violence in hip-hop is not taken as entertainment; it is taken as a problem."

Many say there are criminal elements that get mixed up with rap artists, but it's not unique to rap, according to journalist and author William McKeen.

"When people today talk about popular artists in the marketplace who have associations with criminals: Welcome to the club. It's nothing new. It's been going on the whole time," McKeen said.

McKeen literally wrote the book on this. It's called "Everybody Had an Ocean" and dives into criminal elements and acts during the 60s rock and roll scene, like the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., the murder of Bobby Fuller and even the presence and influence of the notorious cult leader Charles Manson. Given the connection McKeen establishes between crime and the so-called era of peaceful music, Scripps News asked him about today's landscape for rappers.

"I think a lot of the attacks today might be because of the the racial element of it," McKeen said. "I think that part of this might also be a misunderstanding of songwriting. I think a lot of songwriting is done in character. It's almost like you're writing a miniature screenplay."

But the way the law is set up right now, a miniature screenplay or any other form of art could end up in court.

"It can be a drawing, it can be a tattoo, it can be a non rap song, a painting, different forms," attorney Daniel Rozansky said. 

Rozansky, a partner at the firm Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, has defended musicians like Jay-Z in court and spoke with Scripps News about how California — one of the only states to directly address this problem — changed its laws last year to protect artists. He says it's all about considering the overall context. 

"So if somebody rapped about something years prior, that's likely not likely associated with actual criminal behavior that happens five years later," Rozansky said. "If somebody raps about hitting somebody with a car, but now they're being accused of shooting someone, that's going to be of minimal probative value because there's no similarity in the crimes."

Rozansky said the role of a judge as a gatekeeper of the evidence takes on a lot of value in these cases, and the bigger picture — separating the art from the artist — is something they have to consider.

"The court will look at credible testimony on the genre of creative expression as to the social or cultural context rules, conventions and artistic techniques of the expression," Rozansky said.

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On the federal level, there's been some attempts to protect artists. The Restoring Artist Protections Act, or RAP Act, was introduced last year. It aimed to change the federal rules of evidence to allow for greater consideration of artistic expression.

New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman is one of the sponsors of the bill, which technically expired when the new Congress was sworn in this January. But Bowman told Scripps News he plans to reintroduce legislation to tackle what he calls a First Amendment problem.

"Rap is an art form, whether people want to believe it to be or not," Bowman said. "We don't want to make a prosecutor's job harder than what it is. I mean, they have to do a job. If there's evidence to support the job that they're doing, that's fine. We have no problem with that. But there are rogue prosecutors looking to target target this particular genre and in particular people, and all they're using are rap lyrics. That is unacceptable."

Obviously rap can't be every person's cup of tea, and the harshest critics associate it with violence and immorality. But rap is not one thing; it's music by the layers, all different flavors, including some like holy rap. Violent or "gangsta rap" is just one aspect of the genre, which some music industry leaders have tried to grapple with in the past.

The recent CNN documentary about Dionne Warwick's life showed how the iconic singer once reportedly invited rappers like Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight to her home at 7 a.m. sharp to host an intervention about their violent and sexist lyrics. Snoop admitted that had an impact, and he felt "outgangstered" by Warwick and inspired to change his then upcoming album "The Doggfather."

Experts like Alexander say the industry needs more leaders to speak up because, without it, the music will simply follow the money. Edgy references to violence, alleged crimes or criminal intentions — especially between rappers — can increase sales. Artists who are looking to make it in the industry aren't likely to deviate from that trend. 

"Then you give that culture money from the mass distribution of music products, and it just starts to exacerbate itself and become more and more visible, more viable," Alexander said. "It seems as if it's a reflection of a culture when it's actually the reflection of a sliver of a culture."