April Bonus Review #1: Rap On Trial

For people of color, "America's deep-seated fascination with the outlaw" plays the same way it always does.

…but at least there’s an outstanding book hanging a light on the fact.

The crime

I start a lot of case overviews in my reviews this way, but: Which one? Or, here, “Which alleged/ginned-up one?” Vonte Skinner, convicted on the basis of his rap lyrics and in spite of unreliable other evidence? Maurice Patterson, sentenced to death based on a lyrical homage to Tupac Shakur?

…The existence of, no shit, a “Basic Gangology Specialist Certification,” which can be purchased for $197 and completed in “the comfort of your home or office”?

The story

Rap On Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America is easy to read on the prose level; it’s an academic work co-authored by two professors, one of liberal arts (Erik Nielson) and one of law (Andrea L. Dennis), but while it has a certain academic diction to it, and a tight focus on laying out its case, it’s also well arranged, and concise — the hardcover clocks in at 172 pages before the notes and index. The authorial voice is that of your favorite professor, the warm and encouraging (but relatably snarky) teacher whose curiosity about the world they’re leading you through remains undimmed. Take the 101 explanation of what makes rap rap on page 48: anyone who has affirmatively selected the book is likely to “really?” Nielson and Dennis’s elemental definition, but the more I thought about it, the more necessary it seemed to define basic terms. (And if that passage only existed so the authors could get that famous quote in from David Simon about prosecutors clapping on the one and the three, I mean, fair.)

Because once you and the authors have the same stated definition of what hip-hop is, it’s that much easier for them to underline what hip-hop is not, despite the wishful narrative construction of cops; DAs; and the so-called “experts” mentioned above. And it’s that much easier to see the biases, conscious and un-, that allow law enforcement to prosecute (as it were) a double standard when it comes to metaphor in hip-hop — i.e., that rhymers are too ignorant to create a narrator or a fictional realm; and that fans of the genre are too ignorant to distinguish between a figurative narrative in a song, and the reality it’s commenting on or aspiring to. Here again, the reader will be grumbling, “Really?”…but it’s in disgusted disbelief. (I went back and counted the pages I marked with either a “jfc” or an “omfg.” Seven. Plus four frowny faces and an “ugh.”) The section on law enforcement’s leveraging of rap to “prove” gang affiliations on the part of defendants, thereby qualifying them for enhanced sentences (and showing “expert” asses as ignorami who, among other interpretive misdemeanors, hear incorrectly the very lyrics they’ve been sworn in to claim prove gang involvement), is especially maddening.

Today’s gang units …. are often formed in jurisdictions with a perceived gang problem as a way to indicate that police and politicians are “doing something” about it. …

[S]tudies have shown that police in some cities, such as Phoenix, have exaggerated, or outright invented, a “gang problem” in order to justify increased funding from local, state, and federal sources. Research also suggests that gang units are formed in response to community fears about certain minority groups, even when those fears are not borne out by actual crime statistics. (145)

Ditto the citation of prior work that told some subjects a set of lyrics came from a rap song, and others that it came from a country song. I probably don’t need to tell you what the statistically significant results said about bias.

Rap On Trial confronts a Gordian knot of criminal-justice fuckery (that’s the technical term) and pulls it carefully apart without over-editorializing — not a small feat when you’re talking about, say, a federal prosecutor trying to tie a defendant to “key gang member” whose picture was on the defendant’s phone. The picture was of Notorious B.I.G., who at the time this defendant was in custody had already been dead for twenty years. I would have filled 17 pages with the word “argh” and turned it in at that point; Nielson and Dennis confine themselves to the understatement that “Anyone with even a passing knowledge of hip hop would recognize a picture of” Biggie. They don’t get bogged down in fuming about the racism and ineptitude that each multiply the other’s injustices. They just lay out the studies and the case law, measure the slippery slope hip-hop “evidence” sends us down on the wrong side of the First Amendment, and wrap up with some prescriptions for law enforcement — and readers who get called as jurors in cases where rap is used as “evidence” of wrongdoing.

…Okay, calling one of their ideas a “rap shield law” is not in great taste, and in a couple of places, I thought an overt parallel should have been drawn between rap/gang “expert” testimony and the sort of bogus Satanic-cult professional witnessing that strung up the West Memphis 3 and others. But the more I think about the second thing, the more I admire the authors’ restraint in not raging down that or any of the dozen other sidetracks branching off the main topic.

Rap On Trial is an excellent book and a fast read, and I recommend it most highly…but if your book budget these days is down to “what I can find on eBay for ten bucks a box,” Nielson was on PBS Newshour in 2014 to talk about the issue, so you can get an audiovisual taste for free. There’s also a solid excerpt at the Boston Review website. Thanks so much for choosing this one for me, and for your support of Best Evidence. — SDB