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Rap Lyrics Shouldn’t be on Trial. Criminals? Obviously…Right?

This title, right off the bat, puts me in the category of lazy boomers with judgmental views that always indicate a bias against younger generations. 

I know that.  I’m cringing too; but with the ongoing state RICO case against one of my favorite rappers on the planet, Young Thug, I feel called to be honest.

Honest take: When considering the impact that rap lyrics can have in a court case, are we focusing on the right thing?  Are the lyrics actually the issue?  Or has it continued to be the contentious binary between law enforcement and actual criminals?  I’m going to argue the latter.  

To lend a little context, let’s consider the two sides of the argument:

  1. Rap lyrics are just artistic expression.  No other genre’s lyrics are considered evidence for a crime, and using lyrics as evidence leads to discrimination and false convictions.
  2. Rap lyrics are artistic expressions… but can also be clues to the crimes that the artists or members of a criminal organization have committed.  If you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a big deal!

There is, unfortunately, some truth in both of these points.  Especially, when referencing the extreme ends of the spectrum.  

Take for example areas such as Chicago or Jacksonville, which feature multiple rival rap crews which double as gangs, and regularly directly reference murders the rapper themselves or fellow gang members have perpetrated.  It is also a commonplace practice to make jokes, within the lyrics, about recently dead gang members on the other side OR key gang members that particularly hurt a rival gang with his or her passing.  

To reference a popular cultural case, viral Texas rapper Tay-K was found guilty of a whole slew of crimes, including two murders and 3 counts of aggravated robbery.  In reference to rap lyrics leading to arrests, his initial arrest was in connection to a robbery gone wrong, leading to the death of a 21-year-old father.  Although Tay-K didn’t pull the trigger, he did participate in the robbery and gathering items from the house.  After being put on house arrest, the then 16-year-old decided to cut off his ankle monitor and attempt to flee with accomplices, leading to more crimes as the group traveled the country. 

Shortly after fleeing, Tay-K put a song and music video on YouTube called “The Race”, detailing his involvement with the robbery gone wrong.  These lyrics were used as a guideline to where investigators should look for evidence; as well as evidence in and of itself, eventually eliciting a confession from Tay-K when he was caught in 2017.

The key point in this particular situation is the presence of further evidence.  That should be a given. Witness accounts, weapons, forensic evidence… this should be the meat of any criminal investigation.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always.  

In a recent article about the ongoing RICO trial against Young Thug,  a former rapper named Mac, real name McKinley Phipps, was mentioned as an unfortunate victim of a miscarriage of justice.  Phipps was signed to No Limit Records at the time, on the path to success at the age of 22, with no prior criminal record.  

In 2001, he was convicted of the murder of a 19-year-old at a Louisiana club he was scheduled to perform.   Authorities had no weapons or physical evidence to convict Phipps.  What they did have…was his lyrics.  The words “murder” and “kill” come up numerous times, and prosecutors used these lyrics to paint Mr. Phipps as a criminal with a propensity for violence.  

This was enough to secure a conviction that left him in prison for roughly two decades before he was released, with clemency, awarded by Governor John Bel Edwards.  

So, who’s the real enemy?  An argument can be made over the destructive nature of rap culture, but that’s out of the scope of this particular debate.  To devolve into whataboutisms will make me all the more the fist-shaking boomer I don’t want to be.  

Instead, what kind of criminal justice system can secure a conviction without sufficient evidence? What kind of jury would…what kind of American public got so lost in the Helter Skelter-like panic of savage gangbangers stalking them down with impunity that they forgot to weigh the actual tangible evidence?

When will the American public narrow its focus in one direction?

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