If You Take Hip-Hop Crime Stories Literally, You Shouldn’t Be Practicing Law

If You Take Hip-Hop Crime Stories Literally, You Shouldn’t Be Practicing Law

~ From Slate Magazine ~
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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.One of the most famous descriptions of hip-hop comes from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who once characterized rap music as “the black CNN.” It’s a very cool quote from a very smart man that is also entirely untrue. Rap is not the news, rappers are not journalists, hip-hop is not an archive of literal truths. This isn’t something that should have to be explained in 2014. It shouldn’t have had to be explained in 1979 when a man called Big Bank Hank claimed to have stolen Superman’s girlfriend on the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” nor should it have had to be explained in 1991 when a 17-year-old Nas bragged about murdering Jesus Christ and kidnapping Barbara Bush on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque.” If you think rap music is real you shouldn’t be listening to it, nor should you be driving, voting, reading Slate, or doing much else besides enjoying the remainder of your time in elementary school.And yet, a recent New York Times article sheds light on a growing and deeply disturbing practice of using lyrics by aspiring rappers as evidence for the prosecution in criminal trials. The article focuses primarily on charges facing Antwain Steward of Virginia, who is currently standing trial for two counts of murder largely on the basis of lyrics that allegedly refer to a 2007 homicide. (Prior to his arrest, Steward had achieved regional success performing under the handle Twain Gotti.) The Times alludes to nearly 40 other instances of prosecutors introducing lyrics as evidence against defendants, and Slate’s own Justin Peters has covered the phenomenon extensively. “Just because you put your confession to music doesn’t give you a free pass,” declares a former prosecutor, a statement that might belong in a negative review of a Drake album but absolutely nowhere else.People—all people—have a right to make art. They have a right to make good art and a right to make bad art, and other people have a right to judge the content and quality of that art. I enjoy the music of a rapper called Gunplay, who’s had brushes with the law himself and often raps about exactly what you think someone called Gunplay would rap about; if you listen to Gunplay’s music and decide it’s not for you, if you’re aesthetically or morally offended by it, that’s your prerogative. If you listen to Gunplay’s music and decide that he belongs in jail because of it, you should not be allowed anywhere near the American judicial system. Creative expression has a right to exist and to be judged without being taken literally, let alone being turned into a referendum on whether a person should be incarcerated, or worse.

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