When the news of rapper Young Thug’s arrest was made public, shockwaves were sent through the rap and hip-hop communities. It was even more shocking when news broke that he was being charged with a number of crimes violating the Racketeering and Crime Organization Act (RICO). The rapper, born Jeffrey Williams, is famous for his violent yet reverent and catchy lyrics. As the trial is underway and fans wait to hear the fate of Young Thug, the lyrics have gone from the music charts to the courtroom as evidence.
Fans know it’s not just the rapper on trial when a rapper is charged with a crime. Their lyrics are also under a microscope. Months after the arrest, NBC News reported that Fani Willis, Fulton County District Attorney, stated that rap lyrics would be used as evidence against defendants if the case called for it.
Rap and hip-hop being predominantly Black genres of music, fans wonder if it is truly the lyrics they dislike. Or is it a misunderstanding of Black culture?
For a while, using rap lyrics as evidence in court has been common practice. “I think there’s more conversation around it, but prosecutors have been doing this for years,” said Donita Morris, Fulton County Assistant District Attorney. Morris believes social media is the cause of more rappers, hence more lyrics. Whether the rapper is famous or not, if the music is public, it is available for use as evidence.
Violent lyrics have no race
Hip-hop and rap are not the only genres to produce violent lyrics in their music. Genres like heavy metal and screamo breed violence and anarchy within their lyrics. On rare occasions, the lyrics are an automatic admission of guilt.
Outside of heavy metal, there are mainstream songs that contain violence. Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People describes the actions of a school shooting. The band members of Foster The People have not had to stand trial, but the song has received significant praise and accolades. The song went on to reach number three on the Billboard Top 100 music charts in 2011. Billboard also considers the song to be one of the top 100 songs of the decade.
White musicians also have numerous examples of songs where they openly express personal admissions. A prime illustration of this is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. In the chorus of the song, the singer refers to wielding a gun, holding it to a man’s head, and ultimately taking his life. However, it is crucial to note that neither set of lyrics appears to inherently determine the value of white culture.
Is it because we’re black?
The conversation surrounding rap lyrics is ongoing. Many people feel White musicians are not held to the same standard as Black musicians. Les Alexander, a musician and music industry management student at Georgia State University, says he believes rap lyrics, specifically, are being targeted.
“Rap music has always been an outlet to narrate the lifestyle. It paints a picture of what goes on in our communities. It’s easier to look there and just assume rather than do your work as a law enforcement agent and figure out what is actually going on,” Alexander said.
Alexander stated that the 13th Amendment loophole creates an even bigger target on the backs of Black rappers. According to Alexander, using the lyrics is just another tactic to censor, silence, and lock away Black people.
This leaves the Black community and rappers alike feeling like there is a target on their backs. The practice of systemic racism is being questioned. Oxford dictionaries state that systemic racism, otherwise known as institutional racism, is racism that is practiced through laws or societal order. All of the examples of lyrics being used as evidence in court are those of rap music and Black musicians. It can be hard for some people to believe this is not systemic racism in practice. Alexander states, “I think it’s silencing our voices and making us afraid of what we can and what we can’t say.”
The First Amendment continues to stand for the protection of free speech, among other things vital to our citizenship. The amendment does not directly protect rap lyrics. However, some may feel as though they cannot speak freely without it causing harm to them, just as Alexander stated.
“We’re not saying you can’t say it. We’re saying if you do choose to say it and it cooperates with a crime that we’re prosecuting, it may be used against you,” said Morris. Alexander happens to disagree, “It’s a suggested silence tactic.”
The government is not telling rappers not to say certain things. Although it is the only genre being held under a spotlight. Rappers continue to feel they are under a microscope.
Protecting the culture
Progress seems to be making headway in different areas of the country. In late September 2022, the Governor of California signed a bill that significantly restricted the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court. The bill, signed by Gavin Newsom, requires prosecutors to have a great reason to use the lyrics. It is also the goal of the bill to check for biases that may occur. When asked if he thinks this will become a practice in other states or if this will become a national bill, Alexander stated, “It is up to people to decide what they want and who should represent us. It’s up to the vote.”