Human Rights

Being in a Music Video or Writing Rap Lyrics Is Being Used as Evidence to Get (Mostly Black) People Convicted

Rap lyrics and videos are being introduced into court cases with troubling frequency.

Photo Credit: YouTube

Young rap artist B.G.'s promising career was on the rise when his lyrics landed him a 12-year prison sentence. His story is one that is becoming more and more familiar, with discrimination against hip-hop culture in courts and panic to shut down gangs with flimsy evidence based on often-fictional or exaggerated rap stars' personae and lyrics.

B.G.'s 1999 song "Bling Bling" was one of the most acclaimed songs ever put out by a teenage rapper. The track, which climbed all the way to #36 on the Billboard charts, was the first single off the New Orleans rapper's album Chopper City in the Ghetto.

Not even 19 when “Bling Bling” hit the radio, B.G. (real name Christopher Dorsey) had already been rapping for years. He signed to Cash Money Records, before its meteoric rise, in 1992 at the age of 12. There he teamed up with Lil Wayne (at the time Dorsey’s rap moniker was Lil' Doogie and Lil Wayne went by Baby D) to form a group called the B.G.'z. Their album was a local hit, and in 1996, Dorsey released his first solo full-length.

Around the same time, Cash Money Records gave birth to the Hot Boys, a New Orleans supergroup that featured B.G., Wayne, Juvenile and Turk. Universal Records caught wind of the Hot Boys and signed a distribution deal with Cash Money worth $30 million. The partnership established Cash Money as one of the most powerful record labels in the hip-hop world.

Into this climate Dorsey released “Bling Bling,” a posse cut that foreshadowed the pop appeal of Lil Wayne, then 17. The term “bling” had been used to describe flashy accessories before (Dana Dane used the term as early as 1987), but B.G.’s song propelled the term into the suburban lexicon. The music video was nearly as epic as the song, featuring a private jet, stretch Hummers and bowls of money. “The song still sounds relevant today,” observed Complex in 2013, “proving the staying power of both diamonds and youth.”

Today Christopher Dorsey sits in USP Lewisburg, a high-security federal prison 170 miles west of Philadelphia, and he’s scheduled to remain there until 2024. Lewisburg is a prison where violent offenders are typically sent to receive “attitude adjustments” by completing four-stage resocialization programs. Slate’s Justin Peters writes that, "USP Lewisburg might be the worst place in the federal prison system, so bad that some inmates there actually dream of being transferred to the famously isolating Supermax facility in Florence, Colo."

Dorsey isn’t in prison for a violent crime. He was sent to jail in 2009 for gun possession and witness tampering. He had racked up previous charges before he was busted during a traffic stop in eastern New Orleans, where cops found three guns with loaded magazines, and the car itself had been stolen from a rental car parking lot.

Dorsey was arrested alongside Demounde Pollard and Jerod Fedison. Prosecutors reached a plea agreement with Pollard, whereby he ended up being sentenced to only 30 months in jail. Fedison had a number of a prior convictions and was given 20 years. Dorsey plead guilty but refused to cooperate with prosecutors who were looking to pull down a wider web of criminal activity through his arrest. The “no snitching” mantra of the streets is a consistent staple of Dorsey’s songs. On his song, "I Ain't Tellin," he prophetically boasts, "I won't snitch, never tell, if the law comes and get me, I'm gonna sit my ass in jail."

The "stop snitchin’" movement, which gained national exposure in the mid-2000s, has generated a fair amount of hysteria in the mainstream media, but there’s been very little analysis of its origins in hip-hop culture. The few thorough examinations of the topic position its rise within the context of the mass incarceration era. Ratting out someone for a seemingly minor offense could very well land a person in jail for years as a result of mandatory minimums and other “broken windows” policies.

Misconceptions about anti-snitch culture are just one of the many problems that arise when rap is put on trial. Prosecutors were actually looking for a 25-year sentence for Dorsey, citing his rap lyrics as a partial justification for such a punishment. 

“These videos are horrendous, especially in this city right now,” prosecutor Maurice Landrieu told U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan. Berrigan decided against allowing Dorsey’s music to impact the length of his sentence, though she did speculate that his rapping had potentially increased Louisiana's homicide rate. She pointed out that Dorsey’s songs and videos "may have contributed to the murders of young people" and summarized his career as "deplorable and sad.”

Berrigan allowing B.G.’s rap lyrics to factor into the trial would certainly not have been unprecedented. Rap lyrics and videos are introduced into court cases “with alarming regularity,” according to Erik Nielson and Charis Kubrin, two professors who have studied the trend closely. Nielson estimates that rap lyrics have been used in hundreds of cases. A USA Today op-ed, which Nielson co-wrote with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, points out that historically, “Black speech is not always protected in the same way [as other forms of speech]” and “no other fictional form—musical, literary or cinematic—is used this way in the courts.”

This distinction is not lost on some members of the legal community. After filing an amicus brief in support of a defendant whose rap lyrics were used against him in trial, Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, insisted that "this is artistic and political expression and you need to do a more searching review when you're seeking to use this kind of expression against someone." The brief drew a parallel between rap music and other forms of artistic expression: "That a rap artist wrote lyrics seemingly embracing the world of violence is no more reason to ascribe to him a motive and intent to commit violent acts than to saddle Dostoevsky with Raskolnikov's motives."

Rappers themselves understand this fact well. Baton Rouge artist Boosie Badazz, formerly known as Lil Boosie, highlighted the double standard while talking to the Huffington Post about the jail sentences of two rappers on the No Limit record label, C-Murder and Mac. “It’s all bullshit, man,” said Boosie. “They basically got indicted on their lyrics. [Lawyers] used their lyrics against them, when it’s supposed to be freedom of speech. Bob Marley said he shot a sheriff but he didn’t shoot a deputy. Johnny Cash said he shot a man just to watch him die [and they] didn’t get indicted, but we live in Louisiana... There’s no freedom of speech no more.”

Last year, prosecutors in San Diego tried to lock up Brandon Duncan, a rapper who goes by the name of Tiny Doo. His mixtape No Safety earned him nine counts of “gang conspiracy” charges connected to shootings allegedly committed by the Lincoln Park Bloods, a street gang based in southeast San Diego. Duncan was facing a sentence of 25 to life if convicted of the crimes. There was something striking about the case against Duncan: the prosecution acknowledged that he wasn’t involved in any of the shootings.

Prosecutors looked to tie Duncan to defendants on trial for attempted murder via the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, legislation that hit California in 1988. The initiative, which is often referred to as the STEP Act, incriminates anyone who “willfully promotes, furthers, assists or benefits from any felonious conduct” with gang members. In the Atlantic Monthly, Karlanna Lewis wrote that the case against Duncan boiled down to “a mixtape he released a year after the shootings occurred, a couple of dated social media photos with a single documented gang member, and a 17-year-old police report documenting Duncan as a member of the Lincoln Park Bloods.”

The charges against Duncan were ultimately dismissed, but the ordeal sparked a fair amount of media coverage for its obvious First Amendment implications. The case also pushed Duncan toward criminal justice activism. “I have to talk about this stuff,” said Duncan in an interview. “It’s definitely, definitely, definitely all new for me but I felt like when I was going through the case that if I was quiet about the situation that they would try to do it again to someone else.”

While many view the use of rap lyrics in trials as a disturbing trend, the Tiny Doo case added another wrinkle to the controversial tactic. Rap was being introduced into a trial, not because it pointed to a rapper’s alleged criminal activity, but because it pointed to a rapper allegedly benefiting from criminal activity. CNN legal analyst Mark Gerago speculated that the district attorney was trying to send a message to other musicians that, “You shouldn't glorify or glamorize gang activity.”

But the varieties of this legal strategy do not stop there. On June 28, Telly Hankton was convicted of three murders. Despite the fact B.G. wasn’t on trial, some of his music videos were allowed to be introduced into the trial. A piece by Katy Reckdahl on the use of rap music in criminal cases quotes criminologist Charis Kubrin on the trial: “I’ve never seen a case where videos could be introduced without the rapper himself being on trial.”

One of the music videos allowed into the trial was for the song “Guilt by Association.” Prosecutors claimed that on the track, B.G. rapped about how Hankton's associate Walter Porter killed a man named Jesse Reed. Porter is seen in the video and B.G. raps:

"Niggas get too close to me, got my gat in my hand. Turn around, nigga, put one in the back of ya head. Fucker. I keep them goonies around, who keep them toolies around. Niggas get hit 50 times, if my nigga Moonie around."

Cases like this are distressing to many in the music industry, not just because there's an assumption that rap videos are factual, but because the collection of people who end up in videos often have no connection to one another. Andrew Barber, editor of the Chicago-based music website Fake Shore Drive, told AlterNet that it's important to remember how much rap videos have changed since the '90s. "You're only getting a big budget clip if you're super A-list, or if you have funding from a big sponsor such as Apple Music, Beats by Dre or a liquor brand," said Barber. "Other than that, you're pretty much on your own."

Barber explained how many videos are made nowadays, without the big money backing them:

"It's very rare and unlikely to show up to a video shoot now where there's a call time, real director, extras and a catering table. Most artists just take it to the streets to shoot with no budget or even any real direction of what they plan to do. Unknown artists literally shoot on the blocks they grew up on, and any and everyone shows up. You can't really control it. Even a mid-tier artist can draw hundreds of onlookers. People just want to be a part of something."

Barber detailed a specific example of this happening in Chicago, after the popular Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane came to the city to shoot a video with a group called the L.E.P. Bogus Boys. The group didn't have much of a national following, but:

"They decided to shoot a scene on the Westside of Chicago. They pulled Gucci Mane's massive tour bus right into a Check Cashing parking lot and started shooting unannounced. Within minutes, thousands of people had flooded the corner, the street, the intersection. It was mayhem. Cops had to get involved and manage the situation. Anybody who was anybody showed up for a cameo and to be seen. You really couldn't control it."

The trend of prosecutorial requests over rap videos functions alongside the current boom in conspiracy laws being implemented to conduct gang sweeps. That was, after all, the state's argument for locking up Tiny Doo. In a recent piece at the Intercept, Alice Speri explains that figuring out who belongs to a gang is actually much more complicated than many people assume:

"Determining exactly who belongs to a gang or crew, and then within it, who is actually conspiring to commit crimes, is not as straightforward as checking membership rolls. And assuming today’s public housing crews are as organized and methodical as some of their early inspirations or other criminal groups reveals a lack of understanding, critics say. More often than not, if you’re born on a block, that’s the group you belong to, regardless of how actively or reluctantly you identify."

B.G. is currently seeking a new day in court. Last year he filed a legal complaint claiming that the judge handed down a lengthy sentence based on his rap persona. His eight-page motion says that he, "holds no ill feelings for the sentence he is serving, but respectfully requests that this court please review this sentence because the applicable criminal history category does substantially over-represent the seriousness of his criminal history or the likelihood that the defendant will commit (an)other crime."

Michael Arria is an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet's labor editorFollow @MichaelArria on Twitter.

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