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Rappers are ‘Products Made to Crumble’: A Review of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America

By Tyler Bunzey |@t_bunzey | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020.

Hip-hop has changed quite a bit since its early years as a small cultural movement in the South Bronx. Almost half a century old, hip-hop is now a massive international cultural force with multiple subgenres, a force that informs the layout of the recording industry, fashion, marketing, the American vernacular, and, hell, even U.S. diplomatic relations. Other major musical genres like country (see the trap drums and 808s in Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down”) and pop (see the trap drums, flow, rhyme scheme, videography, lyrical content, and just about everything else in Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”) pull heavily from hip-hop’s style, phrasing, and choreography, wrapping themselves in the aural contours of rap music. Hip-hop shows no signs of slowing down, and its adaptability to just about any subject matter, form, or cultural content enables it to be repeatedly reborn for each of its successive generations of practitioners and fans. 

However, according to Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis in their new monograph Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, one thing that hasn’t changed since hip-hop’s inception—its association with criminality. In its earliest years, graf writers took the brunt of the law’s distaste for hip-hop’s wild styles (Interestingly the NYC Police Benevolent Association recently tweeted a beautiful graf mural on a subway car while resurrecting the 1970s language that labels graffiti as “evidence of decay,” just weeks after the MTA decried a 8-car piece dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased graf writer PHASE 2 in December of 2019. And it don’t stop!). 

Since those early years, rappers have continually come under the ire of the law. N.W.A. famously ran into trouble with the Detroit police over the lyrics of “Fuck Tha Police.” 2Pac was the target of brutality from the Oakland Police for jaywalking. Jay-Z’s caught a controversial stabbing case in 1999. More recently, Tekashi 6ix9ine has become rap’s most famous snitch, and Da Baby has faced targeting by police in both Charlotte and Miami. Rap’s long antagonism with the law taps into a longer history of the black performers being targeted by America’s legal system, from the Slave Codes that barred enslaved people from drumming to the Cabaret Laws that disproportionately impacted black performers in the 1920s to the “Red Scare” that targeted black literary artists like Langston Hughes in the 1940s and 1950s to the now-infamous COINTELPRO FBI program in the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, the law’s antagonism toward rap music is historically consistent. The tradition of wielding the law as a weapon of racial control is as American as apple pie. Nielson and Dennis’ monograph—half scholarly legal project and half an activist call to action—focuses on a particular aspect of rap and criminality’s storied relationship: the use of rap lyrics as courtroom evidence. Contextualizing lyrical evidence within hip-hop history, Rap on Trial argues that rap’s treatment in the courtroom is exemplary, and the consequences are life threatening for those of hip-hop’s practitioners that fall victim to this dangerous legal trend. 

While Rap on Trial certainly falls in line with Critical Race Theory and other legal scholarship concerning race and hip-hop—like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness or Paul Butler’s Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice—Nielson and Dennis are careful to couch their discussion in aesthetics to supplement their legal case studies. The authors suggest that the courts’ abuse of lyrical evidence as autobiographical record comes from a racial misreading of hip-hop’s lyrics as evidence of crimes committed rather than narrative creativity. In an exploration of the history of hip-hop’s development (Chapter 1), the authors continually return to hip-hop’s own definition of its aesthetics to demonstrate how woefully wrong so-called experts, prosecutors, and witnesses often are. This insistence on respecting hip-hop’s racialized aesthetics does more than simply decry the abominable process of locking up artists for their creative output. It also makes a case for the role that creative arts education can play in legal doctrine. Put simply, critical theorizations hip-hop’s aesthetics have direct import on the lives of artists. Their discussion of rap on trial is more aesthetics in praxis than an academic theory of hip-hop, as the misunderstanding of rap’s lyricism literally determines the freedom of these practitioners. Artistic ignorance may seem insignificant to some, but it costs the freedom of others.  

The rest of the monograph traces this theme of aesthetic illegality through rap’s entrance into the courtroom (Chapter 2) and the pitfalls that meet lyrical evidence as soon as it’s presented (Chapter 3). Rap on Trial suggests that lyrical evidence ought to be ethically inadmissible because it is wielded as a colorblind legal mechanism to place black and brown men in prison. The study only has one instance of a white practitioner being jailed for her lyrics because, unsurprisingly, this colorblind mechanism disproportionately impacts black, low-profile artists. 

In Chapter 4, Nielson and Dennis eschew a traditional First Amendment argument on behalf of artists. Building off the theoretical scaffolding of the preceding chapters, the authors suggest that the First Amendment defense—“it’s all free speech”—is a cop out because “rap on trial is not a first Amendment issue with racial implications. It’s a racial issue with First Amendment implications” (25). In other words, rap lyrics’ use in the courtroom will not equally impact all genres, and country fans don’t exactly need to be concerned about rap’s treatment in the courtroom because it won’t extend to their preferred genre. Chapters 5 and 6 push this argument for rap’s racialized treatment further, intertwining rap on trial with the rise of gang units, ignorant or malicious prosecutors, and untrained experts. 

Although Rap on Trial is comprehensive, groundbreaking, and fundamental to understanding how the justice system targets black artistry, most remarkable is its repeated insistence on praxis as analysis. Both the conclusion and epilogue to the study provide comprehensive directives for concerned citizens, scholars, and legal workers to work against this prosecutorial trend. Additionally, the chapters are peppered with personal vignettes about expert testifying that Nielson has done in service of eliminating this practice, including cases that he has won and lost. Rap on Trial refuses to over-intellectualize the issue. Real lives are at stake. Thus, the authors include real methods for change, however large or small. 

This laudatory dedication to praxis, however, perhaps prevented Nielson and Dennis from connecting their work more explicitly to the history of Critical Race Theory scholarship that could be useful in theorizing this dangerous courtroom practice. Aside from a brief invocation of Michelle Alexander, the authors generally avoid over-intellectualizing rap on trial, an understandable impulse for a book with such high stakes, to be sure. However, stronger explicit connections to Critical Race Theory may have bolstered the study’s ability to be transposed into other legal and racial contexts. 

For example, the discussion of “thug” as colorblind dogwhistle would meld beautifully with Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s mapping of colorblind discourse in Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. The disparity among the treatment of rap versus other genres coded as white (e.g. country, pop, etc.) could easily be supplemented with Cheryl Harris’ foundational essay “Whiteness as Property.” The manner in which the courts racialize rappers with the use of their lyrics demonstrates how whiteness and non-whiteness are encoded into law, and thus could benefit from framing with Ian Haney-Lopez’s White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. Without sacrificing the fundamentally important practical nature of the study, the Rap on Trial could benefit from a touch more theoretical disposition in order to make the book as useful to those outside of hip-hop studies as it is useful to those within. 

Theoretical quibbles aside, Nielson and Dennis’ study is fundamental in understanding how racial inequality is able to thrive in the colorblind era of American legal discourse. Ariana Grande sure as hell isn’t being audited by the IRS for the likely deficit spending she describes in “7 Rings.” But likewise, a high-profile rapper like Future isn’t being investigated by the FBI for the death-inducing amount of drugs he describes taking in “Mask Off.” Rather it is the Black working class artist, the same artist who has been repeatedly targeted by American penal codes through Jim Crow and into the Era of Mass Incarceration, who suffers from America’s aesthetic refusal of hip-hop. As 2Pac so brilliantly put it in “Hail Mary,” black artists are “institutionalized, products made to crumble,” especially in the courtroom. America’s willful ignorance of hip-hop culture is much more than a racial rejection of aesthetics. It has life-altering, insidious consequences for those Black artists caught in the crosshairs of the courts’ racial subjugation. And it don’t stop. 

Tyler Bunzey is a  Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.  Follow him on Twitter: @tbunz3


Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America 

Hardcover: 224 page

Publisher: The New Press (November 12, 2019)

A Review of "Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America"

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