When Johnny Cash sang about shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die,” nobody interpreted it as an actual confession. But when hip-hop artists adopt fictional personas to rap about selling drugs or killing rivals, America’s criminal justice system too often takes them literally. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, scholars Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis examine dozens of cases across the country —among the hundreds they have found— in which prosecutors have used the rap lyrics of defendants against them in the courtroom. Whether interpreted as admissions of guilt, evidence of bad character, or threats of future violence, rap has been used in court in ways that would be unthinkable for any other musical genre.
Nielson and Dennis link this disparate treatment to the history of hip-hop, which emerged in the South Bronx in the 1970s as a distinctly African-American art form. Long after achieving mainstream success, hip-hop continues to be perceived negatively by large swaths of American society. In this path-breaking book, which features a foreword by Grammy-award winning rapper Killer Mike, the authors examine the scope of the problem and lay out an array of solutions, from the use of expert defense witnesses knowledgeable about hip-hop culture to potential state legislation banning the use of rap lyrics in the courtroom – because, in America’s current legal system the authors argue, “rap lyrics aren’t just prejudicial. They are toxic.”
“Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America” by ERIK NIELSON AND ANDREA L. DENNIS with a foreword by Killer Mike is now available at Barnes & Noble and other select bookstores.
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