Guest lecturer argues against rap lyrics as criminal evidence

Kyle Adams talks about stereotyping and the use of rap lyrics in court in his lecture "Rap Music on Trial." Grace Everett | Photographer

By Tyler White | Reporter

On Tuesday, Kyle Adams, associate professor of music in music theory at Indiana University, presented a lecture called “Rap Music on Trial” as a part of the Lyceum Series at Baylor. His presentation discussed how rap lyrics are wrongfully used as evidence in courts against the artists.

The Lyceum Series is an opportunity for the university to invite distinguished teachers and guest artists to discuss and present on topics of their expertise. It provides students with exposure to broader topics and experts on their respective fields.

Dr. Laurel Zeiss, associate professor of musicology at Baylor, said music is a powerful influence on society and acts as a mirror for what’s going on in society. Relating it to rap, she said it’s important for people to look at rap’s influence and impact without misunderstanding its lyrical content.

“It’s a prominent part of culture in the United States and across the world today,” Zeiss said. “I mean, hip-hop and rap has been very influential on a variety of artists and in a variety of genres. And certainly early hip-hop had a big influence on fashion, visual arts, economics and culture.”

In his presentation, Adams said rap lyrics are often mistaken and used as criminal evidence to charge the artists for crimes. He said not everyone is acting out their lyrics, and it is instead a metaphorical formula of lyricism.

“Rap lyrics are based on sort of set stock formula patterns that have been going on since the earliest days of the genre, and that they shouldn’t be shouldn’t be taken literally any more than we take literally lyrics from other genres of music,” Adams said.

He explained the cases of Clyde Smith, Drakeo and Young Thug and showed how lyrics have been used against these artists in courts in a wrongful manner. Oftentimes, these generic lyrical phrases are used to justify punishment for these rappers, even if they haven’t done anything.

“It’s a world that exists largely on a metaphorical level,” Adams said. “That lyrics are oftentimes dealing with tropes of violence that are largely or even wholly fictional, and that there’s certain sort of just cultural barriers preventing us from understanding that. That’s why this phenomenon of using rap lyrics in criminal trials persists to this day.”

Through his own study and research, Adams shared evidence from a study carried out by Carrie Fried regarding how people perceive rap lyrics. By using the same lyrics and assigning different study groups a genre, participants were asked how they would rate the lyrics in terms of offensiveness, threat and necessity of law regulation. In all questions, the group told that the lyrics were from a rap song, rated the lyrical offensiveness on a higher scale than the other genre assumptions.

“Of course, it’s no secret that people associate rap music with Black artists,” Adams said. “So why does this phenomenon happen? Well, rap and blues has always been associated with poor and marginalized people, and it’s associated with the kinds of activities that mainstream society associates with poor and marginalized people, so resistance and illegal activities going back all the way to the earliest days of rap.”

Adams also said rap lyrics follow lyrical formulas, much like other genres and their songwriting styles. In particular, he said rap focuses on braggadocio and battling which is displayed through metaphorical violence and danger.

“Eventually, what we’ll find is that the image of a gun is used as a metaphor for the mic,” Adams said. “’I’m going to slay you with my microphone’… and then those metaphorical depictions of violence gradually become more and more literalized depictions of violence.”

By sharing lyrics from songs like “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. and “Jeopardy” by Run the Jewels, Adams said these lyrics should not be used as evidence for criminal activity because they simply follow the lyrical formulas of the genre. Most of the time, these artists are relating to their audience by sharing those graphic depictions, yet it doesn’t mean they are actively involved in crime.

“If you want to reach a demographic of young inner city, mostly males, right, then you need to act like you are one of them,” Adams said. “And so rappers, by using metaphors of guns and violence, are sort of trying to relate to their fans who often encounter those kinds of things on the street.”

Rap lyrics should be treated like all other genres, Adams said, but there is an assumption rappers are actively involved with the lyrics they write. He said instead of using the lyrics as court evidence, they need to be viewed as metaphorical lyrical formulas no different than the lyrical formulas of country or rock.

“Rappers may sometimes indeed be violent, but their lyrics offer no evidence of that,” Adams said. “Legal focus on rappers … has deep roots in quite disturbing assumptions about race … and violent or hyper-sexualized content reflects the extension of the types of lyric formulas that characterize rap since its earliest days.”