Race and Inequality

Rap on Trial

Charis Kubrin
Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine

Key Findings

  • Rap music lyrics are being used as evidence of defendants’ guilt in criminal proceedings throughout the United States with increased frequency.
  • The examination of this trend has significant implications for how our society defines creative expression as well as for free speech and the right of all Americans to receive a fair trial.

Description

In the article, “Rap on Trial,” Kubrin and her co-author explored the trend of rap music lyrics being introduced as evidence of a defendant’s guilt in criminal proceedings across the United States. The authors reviewed the current body of literature and various examples from criminal trials to extract salient trends and produce future recommendations. The study observed that the widespread use of rap lyrics in criminal trials resides within a long tradition of antagonism between the legal establishment and hip-hop culture; and found that rather than treating rap music as an art form whose primary purpose is to entertain, prosecutors have been convincing judges and juries that the lyrics are either autobiographical confessions of illegal behavior or evidence of a defendant’s knowledge, motive, or identity with respect to the alleged crime. The study found evidence that rap lyrics are of questionable evidentiary value and that their use in court can result in unfair prejudice. The authors issued a call to scholars to critically examine the growing movement to turn rap lyrics against their authors, expressing the importance of quantifying the extent to which this practice has occurred and continues to occur.

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