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Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America

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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 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, or revelations of criminal motive—and judges and juries would go along with it. They’ve reopened cold cases, alleged gang affiliation, and secured convictions by presenting the 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 prosecutorial 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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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 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, or revelations of criminal motive—and judges and juries would go along with it. They’ve reopened cold cases, alleged gang affiliation, and secured convictions by presenting the 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 prosecutorial 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.

52 review for Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chava

    Erik Nielson's and Andrea Dennis's book Rap on Trial exposes the bias against people of color in the justice system through the lens of the music industry. As the publisher's synopsis states, "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 Erik Nielson's and Andrea Dennis's book Rap on Trial exposes the bias against people of color in the justice system through the lens of the music industry. As the publisher's synopsis states, "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." This synopsis perfectly encapsulates the injustice you gain to learn about from reading this book. This book provides analysis of this practice, including how prosecutors have found loopholes to rules prohibiting the use of an art form to characterize defendants. It was an enlightening but infuriating read. I highly recommend this book, but caution you that you may come away with extremely high-blood pressure afterwards. Thank you to Erik Nielson, Andrea Dennis, The New Press, and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic advanced reader copy of this book for me to read and review. As always, all opinions are my own.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marin Gamboa

    Wonderfully insightful case study of a book. Highlighting how prosecutors get around the prohibition of offering rap lyrics as character evidence and how rap has been denigrated from a work of art to an indication of a faulty character. Artistic expression should not used in court proceedings to indicate bad character, even if offered for motive, intent, or knowledge. My favorite part of the book are the solutions it proposes for combating the use of an art form to characterize defendants as Wonderfully insightful case study of a book. Highlighting how prosecutors get around the prohibition of offering rap lyrics as character evidence and how rap has been denigrated from a work of art to an indication of a faulty character. Artistic expression should not used in court proceedings to indicate bad character, even if offered for motive, intent, or knowledge. My favorite part of the book are the solutions it proposes for combating the use of an art form to characterize defendants as evil and violent. The gatekeepers should check for the evidence once presented at the gate; and I believe that this is the best solution, informing judges about the prejudicial nature of rap lyrics and how they have very little probative value. There are existing mechanisms to prevent rap lyrics from getting to trial, but judges aren't doing their job. Whether their failure comes from ignorance or prejudice is a judge-by-judge determination; but judges need to be educated in this topic all the same. Absent the rectification of judicial oversight, legislation to protect rap lyrics is a good alternative solution. This isn't my favorite solution, but at the same time this solution is proposed SPECIFICALLY because of a lack of proper judicial oversight. This book is a fantastic information piece, and in the interest of justice it should be widely read and distributed.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Wes Taylor

    I was lucky enough to read an advance copy. This is an illuminating analysis of the widespread use by law enforcement of rap lyrics to prosecute young black and brown men. Rap lyrics are treated as threats or confessions in ways that Johnny Cash's lyric, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," never would be. The book should be of interest to those concerned about artistic freedom, racial justice, or mass incarceration -- or who just like rap music. It promises to be one of the most I was lucky enough to read an advance copy. This is an illuminating analysis of the widespread use by law enforcement of rap lyrics to prosecute young black and brown men. Rap lyrics are treated as threats or confessions in ways that Johnny Cash's lyric, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," never would be. The book should be of interest to those concerned about artistic freedom, racial justice, or mass incarceration -- or who just like rap music. It promises to be one of the most important books of the year.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Celine

    I became obsessed with this little book. The exceptions carved out in law for rap/hip hop - so clearly an art form - are maddening. As if we needed any new evidence that courts are systematically biased against black and brown people.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joheiv

    This book is very awesome.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Cristie Underwood

    The author's painstaking research and attention to detail is obvious in the writing of this book. The author laid out the information in a manner that allowed the reader to form their own opinion.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Thank you NetGalley for the ARC of Rap on Trial by Erik Nielson that I read and reviewed. This is on of those books that is a slap in the face of reality that a lot of people are not going to want to read or want to believe but it is what is going on in our country and it has been for a long time. I fell in love with Gangster Rap when I was a young girl in Sunday School and the teacher told us if we listened to that music we would go to hell. I hated Sunday School so I figured I was already on my Thank you NetGalley for the ARC of Rap on Trial by Erik Nielson that I read and reviewed. This is on of those books that is a slap in the face of reality that a lot of people are not going to want to read or want to believe but it is what is going on in our country and it has been for a long time. I fell in love with Gangster Rap when I was a young girl in Sunday School and the teacher told us if we listened to that music we would go to hell. I hated Sunday School so I figured I was already on my way there so I talked my mom into taking my to the record store and I bought some N.W.A., Public Enemy and anything else I could find with that “bad lyrics” sticker on it. I was hooked. A young white girl from the country blasting rap music got some strange looks so I could just imagine how life was for the men and women who get targeted for their music taste. Just reading this book makes me so mad on so many levels. As a former journalist I hate how people freedom of speech is violated in so many cases this book talks about. It makes me sick that no one sees how stupid they are for using music as a way to convict men of crimes. It makes me wonder when the day will come when an actor or an author will be jailed for what they have done? Has society become that narrow minded that they can’t see beyond someone’s music taste? This book is a book that should be read by all jurors in big cities who sit on trials that may have a case that will get introduced rap into it. Society should be educated about and how weak and flawed it is. I was not aware how often rap was put on trial until I read this book. I knew they tried to bane it. Education is the key and this book is a great start. Rap on Trial gets four out of five stars from me.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Samson

    This book doesn't release for a few months, so I won't quote, but I did get an early copy, and it's unreal. I hope people will be as disturbed as I was to learn that "rap on trial" is happening everywhere and that young men (most of them black/Latino) are being thrown in prison because of their songs. After all of the recent books that have exposed the (in)justice system for what it is, maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but I repeatedly found myself shocked at how blatantly unfair, and devious, This book doesn't release for a few months, so I won't quote, but I did get an early copy, and it's unreal. I hope people will be as disturbed as I was to learn that "rap on trial" is happening everywhere and that young men (most of them black/Latino) are being thrown in prison because of their songs. After all of the recent books that have exposed the (in)justice system for what it is, maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but I repeatedly found myself shocked at how blatantly unfair, and devious, this is. This book is well researched but includes many individual stories that make it hard to put down. Definitely recommend. Also, Killer Mike wrote the Foreword, so that's reason enough to give it a look :)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Tarr

    This book tackles an important and timely question; should rap lyrics be admissible in criminal court cases. The book asserts that rap lyrics are being used in criminal proceedings at an alarming rate in order to prove guilt, provide evidence of gang affiliation, and negatively characterize defendants. Much of the book was compelling and interesting, but use of unsubstantiated blanket statements and biased language made the book seem nonobjective. While some of the case studies presented This book tackles an important and timely question; should rap lyrics be admissible in criminal court cases. The book asserts that rap lyrics are being used in criminal proceedings at an alarming rate in order to prove guilt, provide evidence of gang affiliation, and negatively characterize defendants. Much of the book was compelling and interesting, but use of unsubstantiated blanket statements and biased language made the book seem nonobjective. While some of the case studies presented strongly support the claims of the book, the plural of anecdote is not data. The heavy reliance on individual cases makes the book more readable and accessible, but the briefness of each leaves the reader wondering what was left out - while the authors dislike how prosecutors control and present the narrative of a case to a jury, the authors are doing the same thing here. Rap lyrics do present a unique problem in the courts; while they are artistic expression, filled with hyperbole and exaggeration, they are often presented as real by the artists themselves. How are police, lawyers, judges and juries supposed to decide what is real and what is not? The authors offer a variety of solutions to the problem - some realistic (more qualified experts to educate juries as they weigh evidence, better enforcement of existing rules of acceptable evidence) and some less realistic (jury nullification, special exclusionary rules for rap lyrics). Overall an interesting, if biased, book about an important topic.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Dana

    “Society trains people - potential jurors - to hold racist predispositions, conscious or unconscious, against young black men and against rap music evidence.” “Rap On Trial” demonstrates further evidence of the vast differences in the way black people, especially young black men, are treated as opposed to white men-especially within the judicial system. Sadly, the conclusions in this book didn’t surprise me in the least. I am a bit surprised that the ACLU hasn’t taken up any of the cases cited “Society trains people - potential jurors - to hold racist predispositions, conscious or unconscious, against young black men and against rap music evidence.” “Rap On Trial” demonstrates further evidence of the vast differences in the way black people, especially young black men, are treated as opposed to white men-especially within the judicial system. Sadly, the conclusions in this book didn’t surprise me in the least. I am a bit surprised that the ACLU hasn’t taken up any of the cases cited (at least it wasn’t mentioned). That rap lyrics are used to cause bias against the defendants is undeniable, and seems a clear violation of their rights. It’s important to know and understand how and why these differences exist so we can find a way to enact change. Well worth the read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chelsey Keathley-Jones

    I wanted to give this four stars because the content is so important. I really feel that people need to be reading this book, especially young black men. Society isn't fair and what you are posting online will be used against you. However, I felt the author repeated himself a bit much. He was trying to pound in the important stuff but it was repetitive. The book is well researched and I think the real cases with names will help people understand that this is really happening. I will be I wanted to give this four stars because the content is so important. I really feel that people need to be reading this book, especially young black men. Society isn't fair and what you are posting online will be used against you. However, I felt the author repeated himself a bit much. He was trying to pound in the important stuff but it was repetitive. The book is well researched and I think the real cases with names will help people understand that this is really happening. I will be recommending this book! I would like to thank Netgalley and the author for providing me a copy of this book for review.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay

    I won this book in a GoodReads giveaway. It was quick yet eye-opening read. It gives the reader a brief history of rap and how society has used its lyrics to incarcerate people, particularly people of color. I was aware of the need for criminal justice reform, however I had no idea that rap was being used to unfairly prosecute people. This book highlights the fact that rap is art, just like any other medium and it shouldn't be used against people.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sean Ambrose

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Havoc

  15. 5 out of 5

    Whit

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jodie Gobler

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jean Mangan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ben

  19. 4 out of 5

    Niklas Pivic

  20. 4 out of 5

    Malcolm

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ronald Yee

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  23. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ann

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ericka Lawery

  26. 4 out of 5

    Holly

  27. 5 out of 5

    Reggie

  28. 4 out of 5

    Shalandra

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jacki

  30. 4 out of 5

    Oryx

  31. 4 out of 5

    Marian

  32. 5 out of 5

    Towandajane

  33. 5 out of 5

    Alexa Dudley

  34. 5 out of 5

    Marianne

  35. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  36. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Aja

  37. 5 out of 5

    Emma

  38. 4 out of 5

    Jon Fanny Tallefors

  39. 5 out of 5

    Karla Gonzalez

  40. 5 out of 5

    Carmel Sable

  41. 4 out of 5

    Arthur Bartram

  42. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  43. 5 out of 5

    Jasmine Atkins

  44. 5 out of 5

    Ben

  45. 4 out of 5

    Linda

  46. 4 out of 5

    Manisha

  47. 5 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

  48. 5 out of 5

    BMR, LCSW

  49. 4 out of 5

    Meg

  50. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  51. 5 out of 5

    Mackenzie Seward

  52. 5 out of 5

    Frederick Rotzien

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