Poetic (In)Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life, and Criminal Evidence

42 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2008 Last revised: 1 Oct 2015

See all articles by Andrea Dennis

Andrea Dennis

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: December 17, 2007


Courts routinely admit defendant-authored rap music lyrics as substantive evidence in the adjudication of criminal cases. In doing so, courts fail to recognize that rap music lyrics are art. Rather, judges view the interpretation of rap music lyrics as a subject of common knowledge, interpret the defendant's lyrics literally, and characterize lyrics as autobiographical depictions of actual events. In making admissibility decisions, courts must give consideration to the social constraints and artistic conventions impacting the composition and interpretation of rap music lyrics. More particularly, they must understand the commercialized nature of the rap music industry, artist claims of authenticity, and the use of poetic devices such as metaphor, boasting, perspective, and narrative. Likewise, jurors must be informed of such information when tasked with evaluating the weight of such lyrical evidence. Factoring this information into the admissibility analysis reveals that courts are admitting artistic evidence masquerading as real-life events, impermissible evidence of character and propensity, and unfairly prejudicial evidence. To avoid these problems, I suggest that courts considering admission of rap music lyrics written by defendants should determine the meaning of the lyrics from the artistic perspective of the defendant-lyricist as well as permit the defense to offer judges and jurors expert testimony respecting the composition of rap music lyrics. This approach can operate within the current system of evidence rules and balances the interests of defendants, the prosecution, and society.

Keywords: Evidence, Criminal Law, Criminal Adjudication, Humanities, Hip Hop

Suggested Citation

Dennis, Andrea, Poetic (In)Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life, and Criminal Evidence (December 17, 2007). Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1104756

Andrea Dennis (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States
706-542-3130 (Phone)

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