The Rap Bias

With the national debate on race relations as a backdrop, we talk with UC Irvine professor Charis Kubrin about her research on rap music and the judicial system. Is there really justice for all?

Charis Kubrin is a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine, and her work examines aspects of urban life: race, crime, neighborhood dynamics, and the media. But she’s best known for her research into the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. She has been asked to testify for the defense in two and has consulted on others.

The country’s already fractured history of race relations has become explosive after a string of racially charged conflicts, including shootings in Ferguson,  Mo., Columbia, S.C., and other American cities. There’s no better time to talk about it all: What do traffic stops mean to black men? What do hoodies mean to whites? What does a Confederate flag mean to us all?

In a year that brought us “I can’t breathe” and Black Lives Matter, we talked with Kubrin about what rap symbolizes to white America, and the ramifications of this, in turn, for black defendants. What she has found might surprise you.

Orange Coast: The bottom line of this research is that if you are somehow implicated in a crime, or if you are pulled over in a traffic stop, just the presence of rap music on your person or in your car can dramatically affect whether or not you’ll end up being prosecuted and convicted. Is that correct?
Kubrin: Absolutely. Particularly with self-authored lyrics. And you don’t have to be implicated in a crime at the outset. In the (2007) case of Olutosin Oduwole, a (Southern Illinois University) student, campus police saw what seemed to be an abandoned car and they searched it. They found the things you’d expect in a college student’s car. But Oduwole wanted to be a rapper, and he did a lot of writing, so they also found a piece of paper tucked between the driver’s seat and the console, with gangsta rap lyrics that he’d composed. Now it’s gangsta rap, so by definition the lyrics were about crime. But this was enough to obtain a search warrant for his home and argue in court that he’d made a terrorist threat and that he was violent. This was a piece of paper in his car, and he spent almost a year and a half in prison.

Did anyone ever receive a threat?
No. It was a piece of paper sitting in his car. (An Illinois appellate court overturned Oduwole’s conviction in 2013.) I’ve seen many cases in which a crime has been committed, an individual is charged with that crime, and lyrics are brought in as evidence of motive or intent. There’s an implication that if someone could write lyrics like this, then they can certainly do this crime—even if the lyrics and the crime have no correlation whatsoever. I have yet to see a case where a guy has been charged for XYZ crime, and there, in the lyrics, he admits to XYZ crime. This is literally people getting put away for their lyrics.

We’re thinking of the success of the movie “Straight Outta Compton” and how popular rap has been for more than three decades—so many kids must pass the time jotting down lyrics in their rooms.
These cases involve aspiring rap artists, so they have lots and lots of lyrics in notebooks. There have been hundreds of new cases just since 2014. We’re now in the process of creating a database of them. California is ground zero for this practice, by the way. We’ve found cases all over the country, but California is just out of control.

There’s a rapper in San Diego named Tiny Doo (given name Brandon Duncan). Not a gang member, no priors, family man with a kid, and he’s trying to make it as an aspiring gangsta rapper. He put out an album, and prosecutors claimed that it inspired a San Diego gang to commit a number of murders. The prosecutors acknowledged that Tiny Doo was not a member of the gang. They acknowledged that he had no affiliation with any of its members. Prosecutors said he wasn’t at the scene of any of these murders.

But Proposition 21 says that anyone who profits from gang violence can be considered part of a conspiracy and held responsible for that violence. Supposedly Tiny Doo benefited from the sale of the album, so he was charged with nine felonies. A judge finally threw out the case, but only after Tiny Doo had spent about eight months in prison.

Charis Kubrin
Charis Kubrin

Any indications that white supremacist, neo-Nazi, skinhead lyrics are used in the same way?
This does not happen with other music genres. A (University of Georgia) law professor named Andrea Dennis wrote one of the earliest pieces on this practice, analyzing every case where defendant-authored lyrics were introduced as evidence in a criminal trial. All but one were rap lyrics cases. This study was published nearly 10 years ago, and it hasn’t changed much.

Why do you think that is?
It’s a complete double standard and ultimately a denial of rap as a form of artistic expression. And a part of that denial, I think, comes from who’s making the music: mostly young black men from the city, lower socioeconomic status. The music itself—and I’m not talking about all rap, but gangsta rap, which is just a subgenre—is violent. But there’s a lot of violence in art. I just saw “Game of Thrones” for the first time, and it was filled with so much violence and misogyny that it took my breath away.

We can’t imagine “Game of Thrones” author George R. R. Martin being charged in connection to any rapes committed by fans of the show.
Neither can I. It’s not only about the violence that’s in the movie or the music. It’s also about the stereotypes of the people who make the music. I’m really interested in the “activation” of stereotypes. A jury is presented with violent lyrics written by young blacks in inner-city communities, people who already are seen as inherently threatening and violent. The lyrics reinforce a perception of the inherent criminality of these men. I don’t think that jurors are aiming to put a black person away. But I think that perceptions and stereotypes about young men of color are getting activated by these lyrics, and it’s impacting decisions.

Look, if the guy did it, bust him. I want him in jail. But use traditional forms of evidence—physical evidence, eyewitness testimony—not artistic statements. That’s why I think the lyrics need to be out: They’re prejudicial.

People really don’t like hearing that they might have biases that could be activated. But we suppose things are thrown out all the time because they’re deemed too prejudicial, things that have nothing to do with race.
In the ’90s, there was a study that looked at responses to some lyrics. The lyrics were, “Well, early one evenin’ I was rollin’ around/I was feelin’ kind of mean, I shot a deputy down.” The researchers randomly told some people that it was a country song, and told some people it was rap. They asked the subjects to evaluate the lyrics: How offensive are they? How dangerous or threatening? Should they be regulated? Would you ever let your kids listen to them? When the lyrics were considered country they were much less threatening, offensive, and dangerous compared to when people thought they were reading rap lyrics.

What kind of song is it?
A folk song. They deliberately went outside of country or rap because they wanted it to be neutral. It was “Bad Man’s Blunder” by the Kingston Trio.

The Kingston Trio wasn’t very threatening.
Isn’t that hilarious? Whenever I cited this study in a talk someone would say, “That study came out in 1999. That’s almost 20 years ago. The country has changed a lot since then.” So in June, we replicated the experiment. We followed the same protocol. Used the same lyrics. Asked the same questions, using the exact wording. And we added a few new questions: How literal or truthful do you think these lyrics are? Do you think that the person who wrote these lyrics is doing what the song says? Do you think that these lyrics are autobiographical statements?

Nearly two decades later, and not a damn thing has changed. The people who thought the lyrics were from a rap song saw them as more dangerous, offensive, threatening, in need of regulation, and literal.

Illustration by Rory Kurtz
Illustration by Rory Kurtz

Most of that doesn’t surprise us, unfortunately. But we’re surprised that rap lyrics are seen as more likely to be autobiographical.
And literal. That, I argue, is why they’re so prejudicial in court. You have to understand what the artistic conventions of gangsta rap are before you interpret what the lyrics mean on behalf of the defendant. Gangsta rap is violent, yes. By definition. If a rapper says he’s a gangsta rapper but he’s not rapping about violence, then he’s not doing gangsta rap.

You might not like rap music, but that doesn’t mean that rappers aren’t being creative. They are using metaphor and hyperbole, they’re inverting meanings. But to prosecutors, rappers are simply thugs in communication with other thugs, through their lyrics. It’s a device to brag about the crimes they’ve committed. These lyrics are assumed to be literal, autobiographical, confessional statements. And that’s the way the lyrics are presented to the jury.

But the rappers have chosen to adopt a violent persona.
They’re characters. Who knows what (wrestler) Hulk Hogan’s first name is? We know him as Hulk Hogan. But in his case we understand that it’s a character.

Let’s be honest: We generally think of a wrestler as a guy with a goofy persona and an unusual name. But we think of a rapper as a guy with an unusual name. No persona. So here’s the big question: Do you think people assume rap lyrics are confessional
and autobiographical (but not imaginative and creative) in part because they find it difficult to think of black people as possessing imagination and creativity?
You’ve nailed it exactly. Now that statement—when I give academic talks—that’s what I want to say. It’s hard for me to actually say that, but I think that’s what’s happening.

We take it for granted that artists can create worlds they haven’t inhabited. No one has accused Francis Ford Coppola of being a gangster.
Or Quentin Tarantino. Now I’m hesitant to claim that these are overtly racist actions by prosecutors and judges. I think prosecutors want to win cases, and this is the silver bullet because the lyrics themselves are so prejudicial and so impactful to jurors. Whenever I’ve testified, the juries have been mostly white, mostly over 50. They don’t know a thing about rap music, let alone gangsta rap. But I’ve seen lyrics presented to the jury as violent when the violence was metaphorical. For example, rapping about slaying a competitor at the microphone.

Former chief executive of Death Row Records Marion “Suge” Knight is facing trial for murder. Do you have thoughts on his case?
I’m concerned with people who are convicted on the basis of imaginative lyrics in the absence of any traditional evidence, and frequently in the absence of an actual crime. I’m not sure that this applies to Suge Knight.

How did you get started on this?
My Ph.D was in sociology, my area of concentration was criminology, and my sub-area was race and ethnic relations. I had always had an interest in hip-hop and rap music, and growing up I listened to it obsessively.

So you were a fan. This is not just ethnography for you.
Oh, totally. Yeah, I was a huge fan. And I noticed that a lot of sociologists—very famous sociologists, including sociologists of color—had nothing to say about the role of rap or hip-hop in the lives of these boys. And it’s like, how do you talk about what’s happening in the inner city and not have music as a part of that discussion? At the same time a lot of statements were being made about rap music outside of my field, a lot of claims and ideological critiques in cultural studies that were not empirically sound. I can pick up a bad romance novel, pull out a page and say, “See? Literature has no complexity.” And critics of rap can make any claim—“All rap is misogynistic.”—and then go find songs to support it. And the misogynistic songs are bad. They’re awful. But can you come to that conclusion about the music more generally?

I wanted to study how rappers made sense of their communities through their lyrics. But I left it alone because no one else was doing it and it seemed too fringe. When I hinted at it to my advisor, I got the “Are you crazy?” look. But when I started to work as a professor I said, “I want to do what I want to do.”

You’re white. People are generally surprised to find that you study rap.
I have a lot of different research areas. The one that provokes the most fascination is my work on rap music. I (also) study homicide. I study immigration and crime. I do a lot of spatial mapping of crime.

Where’d your research start?
I started doing detailed content analyses of lyrics. I coded lyrics for themes like respect, willingness to use violence, material wealth, objectification of women, and nihilism. Respect was the most commonly referenced theme in my samples. Misogyny was the least common theme, believe it or not.

Seriously? It’s an axiom that rap music is filled with misogyny.
Some songs are very misogynistic. The paper I wrote on that was very hard to write, because the misogyny is so painful. But it was the least common theme.

One theme that surprised me was nihilism, how people understood and experienced what it’s like to be in a violence-filled environment. I’d been listening to rap for years, so obviously I knew that the theme came up. But you see different things when you’re doing formal analysis. Notorious B.I.G. has a song called “Things Done Changed,” and he describes a rosy picture of being a kid in the projects, with summertime cookouts. Then he says, “Turn your pagers to nineteen ninety-three/Niggaz is gettin’ smoked G, believe me.” He doesn’t say, “De-industrialization, mass incarceration, and the drug war impacted my community,” but he’s describing the aftermath of that.

And so many songs are obsessed with death and dying and the afterlife. Snoop Dogg has conversations with God in his songs and asks for forgiveness. In one song he goes to heaven and looks down on his gangsta self. There are very powerful, religious themes, rappers talking about what it’s like to see all of their friends die. Tupac (Shakur) was one of the most nihilistic rappers. He was obsessed with his own life and the fact that it was probably going to come to an early end, which it did.

In short, there’s a lot of grappling with death. A lot of looking toward the other
shore. A depth of vision that’s never discussed.
They’re artists. The art has a lot of complexity, and it gets short shrift.

Watch Her! See Kubrin’s 2014 TEDxOrangeCoast talk:

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