Rap on Trial

Charis E. Kubrin

University of California, Irvine

Erik Nielson

University of Richmond

August 2014

Race and Justice 4:185-211

In criminal proceedings across the U.S., rap music lyrics are being introduced as evidence of a defendant’s guilt. In this essay we draw attention to this disturbing practice, what we call “rap on trial,” and explore its context, describe its elements and contours, and consider its broader significance. We first offer historical context, demonstrating that although the widespread use of rap lyrics in criminal trials may be a relatively recent phenomenon, it resides within a long tradition of antagonism between the legal establishment and hip hop culture, one that can be traced back to hip hop’s earliest roots. We then offer examples of recent cases in which rap music has been used as evidence in trials against amateur rappers, almost all of whom are young men of color, in order to illustrate the specific ways that prosecutors present the music to judges and juries, as well as to highlight the devastating effects it can have on defendants. In the final section, we consider the elements of rap music that leave it vulnerable to judicial abuse, as well as the artistic, racial, and legal ramifications of using this particular genre of music to put people in jail. We conclude with recommendations for further research in this area, pointing out specific areas where scholarship would most effectively expose what it means to put rap on trial.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 28

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Date posted: February 8, 2014 ; Last revised: August 21, 2014

Suggested Citation

Kubrin, Charis E. and Nielson, Erik, Rap on Trial (August 2014). Race and Justice 4:185-211. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2363057 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2363057

Contact Information

Charis E. Kubrin (Contact Author)
University of California, Irvine ( email )
Department of Criminiology, Law and Society
Social Ecology II, Rm 3379
Irvine, CA 62697-3125
United States
Erik Nielson
University of Richmond ( email )
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States
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