They were two American rappers Accused on gang-related charges last week, with prosecutors citing their words and music videos as evidence – a strategy that has been widely documented and criticized in both the US and Canada.
The 88-page indictment filed in Fulton County, Georgia alleges that Young Thug, an Atlanta rapper, co-wrote This is America With Childish Gambino – he is the co-founder of a gang called Young Slime Life (YSL). Gunna, a prominent rap artist on Young Thug’s YSL label, has also been accused.
The gang is alleged to have committed numerous murders, shootings and car thefts over the past decade or so, promoting its activities via song lyrics and social media, according to prosecutors involved in the indictment.
The two were charged with conspiracy to violate the RICO Act, a US law targeting criminal organizations. The indictment makes reference to several of Young Thug’s music videos, including the following song: “I’ve never killed anyone but I have an affair with this body,” and “I told them to shoot hundreds of shots.”
This case is the most famous example in recent memory of rap music being brought to trial. Scholars say that regardless of the accused’s guilt, the use of rap lyrics and music videos as evidence of the crime unfairly targets black men and exploits stereotypes about the genre.
In Canada, more than a dozen cases of rap lyrics have been documented by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, but critics say the practice ignores important contextual elements of rap, such as artistic expression, altered self-reliance and the use of exaggerated comparison.
The rap community – including rappers Jay Z, T.I., and Meek Mill – has always been vocal in its criticism of the use of rap lyrics in the courtroom.
After news of Young Thug and Juna’s indictment, Toronto rapper Cadence Weapon took to Twitter to condemn the use of song lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing.
The YSL RICO case selects some of Young Thug’s words as evidence of a criminal plot. But these famous words have not attracted any legal scrutiny:
Johnny Cash: ‘I shot a guy in Reno just for watching him die’
Why is an art license applicable to some artists and not to others? pic.twitter.com/W7SPBl0AI9
“Why is an art license applicable to some artists and not to others?” He asked citing the famous Johnny Cash song from 1953 Folsom Prison Blues: “But I shot a guy in Reno / Just to watch him die.”
“Certain artists can play the role of the outlaw and use and celebrate the art license,” he wrote on Twitter. “When rappers do the same, their art turns into evidence. These double standards must end.”
The rapper, whose real name is Roland Pemberton, declined to be interviewed for this article.
American record producer Metro Boomin also expressed his displeasure with the indictment on the social media platform, writing that using song lyrics to charge someone is “limp” and a “joke”.
AR Shaw, an Atlanta-based music historian on rap music (a subgenre of rap with lyrical content dealing with drug abuse and drug-related violence) said this was “probably the most well-known case of rap lyrics” for the indictment.
This practice has been criticized as discriminatory due to rap music’s association with the black community.
“It’s certainly unfair in terms of its racial ramifications, because … the artists are predominantly black,” Shaw said.
A form of artistic expression – not an autobiography
Rap artists often take on alternate characters or tell stories from their communities as a form of artistic expression, said Dejah SP, the Toronto-based rapper.
The rapper said that doesn’t mean all rap lyrics are fictional or extracted from other people – but there is a misconception that rappers consistently use autobiographical material in their music.
“As much as people like to think that whatever rappers say is something they’ve experienced or experienced firsthand, more often than not, it’s just a tool for expressing ourselves,” they said.
The permitted use of rap lyrics as evidence in the courtroom has been observed in at least 19 criminal cases in Canada, according to a 2016 research paper by University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich.
In 2012, Lamar Skate, whose stage name is Amo, was convicted of first degree murder in the shooting of a man named Kenneth Mark. Evidence against Skeete included the song’s lyrics “Don’t Crack to the Coopers,” which prosecutors said showed he followed the rules of silence.
Skeete’s 2019 appeal over allowing incorrect words in evidence is dismissed, and He is serving a life sentence.
Mark Moore, an aspiring rapper from Toronto, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the murder of four men.
The Crown argued that Moore’s words “reflected that he felt that having a reputation in the street for violence was a critical aspect of success as a rapper”. They added that his words suggested he wanted revenge for shooting himself in 2001.
The defense is trying to put the lyrics into the jury context
Moore’s defense team requested that parts of the evidence be dismissed for lack of relevance, but the judge deemed the evidence admissible, according to Court files from CanLii.
In another case, Toronto rapper Heartless G, whose real name is Chael Mills, and his partner Lavare Williams had six music videos and lyrics that were confessed as evidence against them during a murder trial. she was accused and convict of first- and second-degree murders, respectively, in 2013.
Tanovic wrote in 2016 article The Walrus told The Walrus that the case marked the first time so many rap lyrics and videos had been admitted in a Canadian courtroom, “undoubtedly” swaying the jury.
In one high-profile case, a judge ruled not to accept rap lyrics as evidence. When Orville Campbell’s words were offered during a 2012 murder case—”one shot/leave your mind on Nikes” and “one shot/make you flip like gymnastics”—the prosecution was dismissed. Campbell was convicted regardless of exclusion.
Prior to this case, only two cases were identified in which song lyrics were deemed inadmissible as evidence, including one involving serial killer Paul Bernardo, a white man.
Hilary Dodding, the Toronto criminal defense attorney who defended Campbell during that trial, said there was a striking similarity between the Young Thug/Johnna case and the Canadian cases in which rap lyrics were admissible as evidence.
“The cases where we see acceptance in Canada tend to be cases where it is used to prove the existence of a criminal organization, which is the same thing they are trying to do in the Gunna case, with the YSL indictment,” she said.
Dudding explained that defense teams fought for the right to bring in a rap expert who could contextualize the art form – so that the words were not taken at face value.
The intent, she said, was for the jury to “be able to understand why people choose these topics, and what the process is for artists as they develop their music.”
“Studies have repeatedly shown that there is a severely detrimental effect of rap acceptance in trials, and this cannot be denied.”
Prosecutors often present rap lyrics as autobiographical rather than a form of artistic expression — and in so doing can benefit from stereotypes against blacks, especially young people, writes Eric Nelson, an American scholar who studies hip hop culture.
From Nelson’s research on American cases documented in the 2019 book Rap on Trial: Race, Songs, and Guilt in America Andrea Dennis co-authored it, and the vast majority ended with convictions with lengthy sentences—and others with the death penalty.
“The question is not whether these young men committed the crimes for which they were convicted,” Nelson wrote in his book. Article 2020. “The question is whether they received a fair trial from an unbiased jury. When rap lyrics are presented as evidence, this becomes highly questionable.”
Like Johnny Cash’s Cadence Weapon, some argue that rap is the only genre in which someone can write a violent lyric and be seen as biased or sectarian.
The odds are already stacked against black artists: the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 2021 Report released Defining anti-black racism within the Canadian criminal justice system.
In the United States, the New York state legislature passed a bill this week called “Rap in Trial,” which would require lyrics to be proven literal — not symbolic or fanciful — in order to be accepted as evidence.
To Dunning’s knowledge, there are no such reforms in Canada – though some efforts To allow lawyers to screen jurors for racial bias.