Rick Ross can rest easy on his hustling. Iggy Azalea can stop worrying about whether she’s really the “realest.” Courts do the darndest things sometimes, so it’s heartening to see that the New Jersey Supreme Court has come down on a side that music listeners have always known is right: Lyrics aren’t necessarily true.
The case of Vonte Skinner, AKA rapper Real Threat, who was convicted of multiple charges in a 2005 shooting, is one of many in recent years where authorities have used rap lyrics as evidence of a crime. At trial, prosecutors read 13 pages of Skinner’s rap lyrics, some of which he had written as many as four years before the shooting; one line referred to “four slugs drillin’ your cheek to blow your face off and leave your brain caved in the street.” An appeals court tossed out the guilty verdict, and earlier this week the state’s highest panel of judges unanimously agreed that the lyrics had biased the jury.
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the August 4 decision, “or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects.”
Rap lyrics have been used in more than three dozen prosecutions across the country since 2002, from Kansas to Virginia, according to The New York Times. “Just because you put your confession to music doesn’t give you a free pass,” one former Los Angeles County senior prosecutor told the Times. But defense lawyers and academics have warned that judges and juries who don’t understand that the hyperbolic, fictional nature of gangsta rap could be unfairly prejudiced against defendants.
Despite the New Jersey court’s mention of Poe, prosecutors haven’t been going willy-nilly after the authors of violent short stories. Rap has been central to “the vast majority of cases” where authorities have used fictional expressions as evidence, according to a brief from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Considering that scholars have argued rap arose as a reaction “the stigmatization of inner-city black youths’ being labeled ‘criminals ‘ in numbers grossly disproportionate to their population,” the brief noted, “it seems a cruelly ironic contribution to the vicious cycle of mass incarceration for rap music to be singled out as a medium of artistic expression capable of supporting criminal convictions.”
The New Jersey ruling doesn’t completely close the door on the use of rap lyrics or other fictional material as evidence in criminal cases. Erik Nielson, an assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, told the Times, “Basically, the opinion says that the lyrics have to more closely match the crime.” He points out that with rap lyrics, that’s not a tough standard for prosecutors to meet.
For now, though, a man will go free rather than serve prison time for a crime he said he didn’t commit (an earlier trial, without the rap lyrics, ended without a verdict — the shooting victim, Lamont Peterson, who was paralyzed from the waist down, was initially hesitant to identify Skinner as the shooter). Other aspiring rappers accused of crimes will have less reason to fear that their lyrics will be falsely used against them. And, in a small way, justice has recognized the freedom from authenticity that has helped foster creativity in rap and beyond.
As MSNBC‘s Adam Serwer put it: “First things first, Nicki Minaj will not literally eat your brains. Jay Z has not sold water to a well. And Nas does occasionally sleep.” Yup. And now, you can tell that to the judge.