Rap Lyrics on Trial Are Altering the Careers of A-List Rappers and Aspiring Artists Alike
Moment of Truth
Since its early days, rap lyrics have been used by prosecutors to build narratives with criminal trials. With the genre's popularity booming, this trend continues to affect aspiring artists and A-list rappers alike more than ever.
Words: Grant Rindner
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands soon.
"Ready for war like I'm Russia" is an evocative simile. It’s politically salient and instantly understandable, if a little trite, but is it “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy?” That’s what prosecutors are attempting to prove in the highly visible RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) case against Young Thug and members of the rapper’s Young Stoner Life Records, including newer star Gunna. The case may have ramifications that could reverberate throughout hiphop for decades. A Grammy winner and habitual chart-topper, Thug is probably the biggest rap artist to ever have his lyrics potentially used in a criminal case. He’s the latest in a long line of rappers whose music prosecutors have attempted to use either to prove intent, establish character or prove a direct link to a specific crime.
“Understand what Thug is going through: ‘I had nothing. I gave an opportunity for my community to build something and believe in something and then I called it Young Stoner Life and I built a multimillion-dollar business and employed people, but more importantly, inspired the next Young Thug to say, ‘There is a way,’” says music executive Kevin Liles, who runs the label 300 Entertainment, where Thug’s YSL is signed. Liles has also functioned as a mentor to Thug for 10 years and gained much recognition when he spoke passionately at Thug’s bond hearing this past June. “‘To now sit and be charged with something that some of the most notorious gang member families, mafia families across the world have been charged with and all I’m trying to do is find a way and I provide, and I have a record company and the whole nine.’”
Thug’s case, in which he’s charged with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s RICO Act and participation in criminal street gang activity, in addition to firearm and drug charges, per a new indictment in August, is one of several in recent years in which songs were used either as part of an indictment or as evidence once the legal proceedings began. Lyrics cited in the Acts in Furtherance of the Conspiracy section of the YSL indictment include bars by Thug (“I’m prepared to take ’em down” on “Slime Shit”), Gunna (“We got 10 100-round choppers” from Lil Keed’s “Fox 5”) and smaller members like Unfoonk and Slimelife Shawty (various lines from “Mob Ties”).
“I think [prosecutors] have perhaps been reluctant in the past to go after famous artists for fear that a jury might see through what they’re doing because they actually recognize this artist as an artist,” says Erik Nielson, a liberal arts scholar and University of Richmond professor, who coauthored the book Rap on Trial and has worked directly with artists whose lyrics were used against them in trial. “However, prosecutors are counting on this tactic working. History is their guide, and history tells us that this tactic is very effective, that you can secure a guilty verdict even if you don’t have much evidence otherwise.”
Prosecutors have been using or attempting to use rap lyrics in court for well over 30 years, dating back to 2 Live Crew, Snoop Dogg and Shyne in the late 1980s and 1990s. Of those whose lyrics have been used to secure a successful conviction, Louisiana rapper Mac Phipps’ case still stands out after two-plus decades. Phipps rose to national prominence after signing with No Limit Records and releasing a pair of commercially successful albums in the late 1990s. He was charged with second-degree murder after a fatal shooting of 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. took place during Phipps’ nightclub performance in Slidell, La. in 2000.
Evidence against Phipps hinged on a series of eyewitness testimonies that changed in the aftermath of the trial. Prosecutors used Phipps’ lyrics, including the titular phrase from 1998’s “Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill,” and cited his nickname, The Camouflage Assassin, to establish his character to the all-White jury. According to NPR, menacing lines, but ones entirely lacking in specificity from Phipps, like, “Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head,” were presented against him in court as well.
Though the Phipps verdict was not unanimous, he was still sentenced based on a law that existed in Louisiana and one other state at the time but has subsequently been changed. A new bill proposed in the state would create a review board for cases like Phipps’, where the jury did not come to a unanimous decision.
Phipps spent 21 years in prison and was released on parole in 2021 after Gov. John Bel Edwards granted him clemency. Now a free man, Phipps doesn’t mince words about the practice he says landed him unjustly behind bars: “My stance is pretty consistent. I am definitely against song lyrics being used in court as evidence because I just don’t think that song lyrics are absolutely enough as reflections of the truth. As an artist myself, I know that artists, we paint pictures. We tell stories.”
But the modern variant of this problem really dates back to 2012. Boosie BadAzz faced a first-degree murder charge for allegedly putting out a hit on 35-year-old Terry Boyd. Prosecutors referenced lyrics from several of Boosie’s songs at trial, one being “187,” and claimed it was recorded the night Boyd was murdered in 2009. “Any nigga who ever tried to play me, they dead now,” and a few key slang terms like “murk” and “cake,” were among the lyrics, Billboard reported. Boosie was ultimately found not guilty after reportedly facing life in prison.
In a less mainstream case, a 2014 decision in response to the trial of alleged drug dealer and aspiring rapper Vonte Skinner found “violent and profane” rap lyrics were read to the jury by a state’s witness, and the court ultimately ruled that they swayed the opinions of the jurors despite not having a material connection to the crime he was accused of. Skinner was charged with trying to kill alleged drug dealer Lamont Peterson in 2008. Lines like: “Two to your helmet and four slugs drillin’ your cheek/To blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street” are provocative and disturbing, but they were reportedly written well before the crime in question took place. The New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned the attempted murder conviction as a result.
The trend has also persisted into the SoundCloud era. Texas rapper Tay-K had both a printout of lyrics for his breakout hit song “The Race,” which include the line, “Shoot a fuckboy in his muthafuckin’ face,” and the track’s music video entered as evidence in his 2019 murder trial. Tay-K was ultimately sentenced to serve 55 years for his role in the killing of 21-year-old Ethan Walker in 2016.
When the use of rap lyrics in court is broached, those who oppose the practice often draw on a few choice examples of non-hip-hop songs in which artists sang about committing violent crimes. Johnny Cash’s 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bob Marley’s 1973 classic “I Shot the Sheriff” are the gold standard, and though Cash was arrested several times during his life, these aren’t perfectly analogous situations. In a piece by The New York Times from earlier this year, reporter Jaeah Lee found just four instances between 1950 and 2022 where other art forms—either lyrics or other fictional writing—were brought up in trial as evidence and none of them resulted in a lasting conviction.
In some cases, it seems like lyrics are one of the only meaningful connections between an artist and the crime or affiliation they stand accused of. Nielson and his Rap on Trial coauthor Andrea L. Dennis cite a 1994 California ruling, People v. Olguin, as establishing that rap lyrics can be used to prove gang ties. The number of gang units grew substantially in the 1990s, and though data suggests it has decreased over the last 20 years, they’re still part of policing discourse. Thug’s case is another example of the legal system attempting to use lyrics to establish gang connections.
Raven Liberty, an attorney for rappers YNW Melly and SpotemGottem, has witnessed law enforcement deliberately blurring the line between what an artist says in their songs or social media posts and who they are in real life. “That is the thing where I’m seeing police, they’re looking at Instagram accounts,” she shares. “They’re looking at your YouTube accounts. They’re looking at anything on the internet that not only you’re posting, but anybody could be posting about you. And they’re running with it. So, going back to this whole Young Thug thing, they were running with it before the RICO charges came down, that he was believed to be a Blood. And you’re looking at the things that they’re doing, and somehow correlating that to gang activities. It’s almost like, if you will, a modern form of racism. You finally see these young Black men making money, so you got to figure out some way now to hold them back from their success, and now you got it. You use their lyrics to get them.”
While the Young Thug and YSL case has dominated headlines for its scale and scope, a case against another hip-hop A-lister broke differently, giving scholars and advocates a moment of optimism. This year, prosecutors in a California-based gun possession case against YoungBoy Never Broke Again sought to use the 22-year-old rapper’s lyrics to prove he had familiarity with Belgian gun company FN Herstal. One of the most referenced weapons in music, FNs have been name-dropped by artists like 21 Savage, Jay-Z and Lil Baby. The weapon is the Amiri jeans of armaments.
On “Gunsmoke,” one of YoungBoy’s songs prosecutors wanted to use to demonstrate YB’s knowledge of the specific weapon found in his car that he denied possessing, he mentions the company’s name a single time on the hook, peppered in among two other references. “FN, Glock, MAC-10s/Comin’ at me on no foolish shit,” YB raps. Ultimately, a judge threw out the lyrics as evidence this past July.
YoungBoy’s trial, originally connected to a 2021 Los Angeles gun possession arrest, took place in California. Though this is a national problem, the specific states where cases are tried matter tremendously since most of these lyrics-related cases and appeals end up going through local state courts. In New York State, the Rap Music on Trial Bill (Bill S7527) would make it so that use of “creative expression” by prosecutors was prohibited unless they could provide “clear and convincing proof that there is a literal, factual nexus between the creative expression and the facts of the case.” The bill passed the State Senate with a 38-23 vote, and had prominent supporters in hip-hop including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and Killer Mike. It now waits for a vote from the State Assembly.
Passing legislation on a state-by-state level poses significant challenges, and seems near impossible to make happen in deeply conservative parts of the South or Midwest. However, there is a proposed federal law, the Restoring Artistic Protection (or RAP) Act, introduced by Democratic congressmen Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York this year, which would greatly limit the ability for art to be used in court by amending the Federal Rules of Evidence. Prominent music industry figures, including Kevin Liles as well as Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. have thrown their support behind the passing of the proposed federal law.
In a statement announcing the bill this past July, Bowman referenced Tommy Mundswell Canady, who as a then-15-year-old occasional SoundCloud rapper with a minimal following in 2014, had his lyrics used against him in a 2016 murder trial where much of the additional evidence linking him to the crime was otherwise considered largely circumstantial. He was sentenced to life in prison. Per The New York Times, one particularly damning lyric, which prosecutors claimed saw Canady threatening the victim by name, was actually a miscomprehension of what he was saying.
While big names are what make the news, most of the people whose lyrics are used against them in trial are more nonprofessional rappers like Canady than Young Thug-type franchise players. In 2020, prosecutors in Maryland cited lyrics performed by hip-hop hobbyist Lawrence Montague over the phone while being held in jail. The referenced bars (in addition to other evidence) included: “You know he’s dead today, I’m on his ass like a Navy SEAL/Man, my niggas we ain’t ever squeal,” and “And if you ever play with me/I’ll give you a dream, a couple shots, snitch.”
After Montague appealed, the judge acknowledged that “rap lyric evidence often has prejudicial effect as improper propensity evidence of a defendant’s bad character,” but said some of his writing bore such a striking resemblance to the crime in question that they “[served] as ‘direct proof’ of the defendant’s involvement.” Montague was ultimately sentenced to serve 50 years in two consecutive terms on murder and firearm charges.
When someone doesn’t have a lengthy musical track record, it’s easier to portray them as a criminal bragging about their exploits instead of an artist first who is afforded creative license to tell stories that sate an audience’s desire for violent imagery. Financially, a star of Thug’s stature has the resources to mount a vigorous defense with top lawyers, something that a rising rapper—or someone who raps as a hobby—cannot feasibly do.
“That’s often because they lack the name recognition of someone like Young Thug,” Erik Nielson conveys. “They probably lack the resources to mount any kind of rigorous defense. They’re vulnerable in the criminal justice system and they make for easier targets.”
Mac Phipps likens it to the difference in treatment to how players are officiated in the NBA, with stars being given more latitude and role players having to deal with a tighter whistle. But the big-name artists frequently draw the intense scrutiny of police in other ways, through the kind of monitoring and actualized or proposed bans that have stymied the drill scenes in Brooklyn, Chicago and England. In the U.K., rapper Digga D was convicted of conspiracy to commit violent disorder and sentenced to a year in prison in 2018. Not only were his videos played in court as evidence, but as the result of a court order, he was required to submit lyrics to the police and notify them anytime he was releasing music. There is potential for legal ramifications if they objected to his words. This is unheard of in the U.S. Criminal behavior orders were introduced in Britain in 2014, to give judges authority to control certain aspects of a convicted criminal’s life. An artist’s lyrics being one of them. The argument is that songs detailing violence lead to further violence.
From a pragmatic, self-preservation sense, there are members of the hip-hop community, including rappers themselves, who urge artists to be cautious about their word choice. The logic here is clear: If nothing in your raps can be interpreted as connecting to crimes, it’s hard for prosecutors to convince a jury you’re a criminal. However, it ignores the demand for violence and crime that has made gangster movies and crime shows mainstays of American culture.
Phipps’ early raps were far less incendiary than what he put out on No Limit, which he says was simply a business decision to make money for himself and his loved ones. To him, it was simply a creator responding to the desires of his consumers. “It was about the money,” Phipps admits. “I was feeding a market, but I reached a point in my career where I was like, Yo, my stomach and my brain had an argument. My stomach won. I had to eat, so I said, ‘I’m going to step into this. I’m going to do this for a minute, feel this out,’ and I jumped in that market and I was able to buy my family a house and get them out of a situation that we were in.”
There is no singular solution to the use of rap lyrics in court, according to the people XXL spoke to. Raven Liberty highlights the importance of the ruling in YoungBoy’s case, and says that how judges interpret the rules of evidence is particularly key. Nielson and Dennis include in their book the suggestion of a “rap shield,” modeled after the “rape shield” laws that prevent the defendant in a sexual assault case from using the plaintiff’s prior sexual history against them. The New York State Senate bill and the RAP Act could do a version of this, raising the burden of proof on prosecutors who cite song lyrics as evidence.
Kevin Liles, whose Rap Music on Trial: Protect Black Art petition, which started in June of 2022 in response to the YSL indictment, has netted more than 60,000 signatures since it was created, feels this should be a nonpartisan First Amendment issue, as well as one of systemic racism. The fact that it is not speaks to the disconnect between those in power—both politically and within the entertainment industry—and the POC communities who most frequently have to contend with their lyrics being used against them in court. “Our products talk back to us,” Liles explains. “Our products are human beings. They don’t sit on shelves and have an expiration date. These people wake up as Jeffery, perform as Young Thug and go home as Jeffery.”
While legal efforts and public advocacy are cause for cautious optimism, the use of rap lyrics as trial evidence remains complex and multi-pronged. It’s tethered to the very roots of the genre—young, creative Black people not given the same tools and pathways to music as their more privileged peers paved an entirely new way for themselves, only to have that art used against them by the powers that be.
“You’re in a community where you’re offered very few options to improve your life,” says Nielson. “There is this multibillion-dollar industry—hip-hop—that offers one of those very limited channels and then if you pursue that, ‘we’re [the legal system] gonna slam the door on you and put you in a cage.’”
Read the narrative piece on the U.S. court systems' battle against rap lyrics in the 25th anniversary issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands at the end of September 2022. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including our cover story with Eminem, Yung Miami, Bobby Shmurda, JID, GloRilla, Yvngxchris, Sleazyworld Go, Styles P, Jim Jones, Symba, Reason, singer Jessie Reyez, actor Trevante Rhodes and music executive Katina Bynum. The issue also includes a deep dive into rappers’ longstanding connection to anime, the renewed interest music supervisors have in placing 1990’s hip-hop in today’s lauded TV series and the 254 past covers in XXL history.