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The Racist Roots Of Rap On Trial

Mac the Camouflage Assassin. Boosie Badazz. Drakeo the Ruler. Mayhem Mal. Since the early 1990s, police and prosecutors have used lyrics to build and try hundreds of criminal cases against rap artists. The practice continues despite research and appeals courts finding that rap music can be prejudicial when presented before a judge or jury without context.

"I'm only here to defend people's right to a fair trial," says Erik Nielson, co-author of the book Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America. "I am convinced that using rap as evidence does not allow for that in most, if not all, cases."

Nielson and co-author Andrea L. Dennis compiled the first database of nearly 500 instances where rap music or lyrics were used in the course of a criminal case. The numbers don't lie: This is only happening in hip-hop. And this use of Black art against the creator is part of a long history of racism in the criminal justice system.

"Decades ago, it was not uncommon for racist rhetoric to be used in the courtroom — that individual defendants might be called the n-word or might be referred to as apes or monkeys or other sort of types of scary beasts," Dennis says. "We see the use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence is simply a more modern manifestation of that now abolished tactic."

From the U.S. government's policing of jazz and blues to rap lyrics on trial, NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden trace Black music's criminalized history and lay out the racist implications behind prosecuting hip-hop.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Kara Frame is a video producer for NPR and pursues personal projects in her free time. She most often produces for NPR's explainer series, "Let's Talk: Big Stories, Told Simply." She's crafted stories about housing segregation in Baltimore, MD; motherhood in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece; and food deserts in Washington, DC. Frame enjoys a break from the news when filming the Tiny Desk Concerts.
Elizabeth Gillis