Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America
A groundbreaking exposé about the alarming use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence to convict and incarcerate young men of color
Should Johnny Cash have been charged with murder after he sang, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"? Few would seriously subscribe to this notion of justice. Yet in 2001, a rapper named Mac whose music had gained national recognition was convicted of manslaughter after the prosecutor quoted liberally from his album Shell Shocked. Mac was sentenced to thirty years in prison, where he remains. And his case is just one of many nationwide.
Over the last three decades, as rap became increasingly popular, prosecutors saw an opportunity: they could present the sometimes violent, crime-laden lyrics of amateur rappers as confessions to crimes, threats of violence, evidence of gang affiliation, or revelations of criminal motive--and judges and juries would go along with it. Detectives have reopened cold cases on account of rap lyrics and videos alone, and prosecutors have secured convictions by presenting such lyrics and videos of rappers as autobiography. Now, an alarming number of aspiring rappers are imprisoned. No other form of creative expression is treated this way in the courts.
Rap on Trial places this disturbing practice in the context of hip hop history and exposes what's at stake. It's a gripping, timely exploration at the crossroads of contemporary hip hop and mass incarceration.
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About the Author
Erik Nielson is an associate professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses on African American literature and hip-hop culture. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and Brooklyn, New York. Andrea L. Dennis is a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and was formerly an assistant federal public defender. She lives in Athens, Georgia.
Praise for Rap on Trial
Named one of the "15 Great Hip-Hop Books Published in 2019" by Okplayer
"[An] interesting and educational read."
--The Philadelphia Sun
"Rap on Trial is comprehensive' groundbreaking' and fundamental to understanding how the justice system targets black artistry; most remarkable is its repeated insistence on praxis as analysis."
--New Black Man (in Exile)
"A compelling call to action in this overview of the use of rap music in criminal trials. . . . This book is a necessary first step in ending a racist and unjust legal practice."
"An urgent call to action. Recommended for anyone concerned with social justice."
"Rap on Trial offers captivating insight on how police, prosecutors, and judges silence and penalize Black music artists. It provides not only a rousing call to action but also a compelling blueprint for necessary change."
--Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
"By highlighting race in this brilliant, well-researched argument, Rap On Trial takes its rightful place within the pantheon of groundbreaking works that unmask the built-in biases of our legal systems."
--Michael Eric Dyson, author of Jay-Z: Made in America
"An illuminating, powerful, and disturbing exposé of how hip hop's often raw, fantastical lyrics are taken out of context to criminalize black and brown youth. Rap on Trial is required reading for anyone who cares about justice and racial equity."
--Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
"An exceptional, nuanced look at how the state transformed an influential art form into a tool of mass incarceration. Rap on Trial is an essential reminder of the importance of First Amendment protections for the most vulnerable among us."
--Anthony D. Romero, executive director, ACLU
"Nielson and Dennis have blessed us with a smart and engaging book that will make readers mad as hell. An essential read for activists, artists, hip hop heads, and all concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, Rap on Trial does it 'for the culture.'"
--Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men