Evidence vs. art: Can violent rap lyrics be taken as confessions?

There have been many cases over the years involving criminals who almost got away with their crimes but were eventually foiled by their own pride. They simply couldn’t help bragging about what they had done.

But what exactly constitutes a confession? This is one of many questions at the heart of a growing debate between prosecutors and civil rights advocates. Over the last couple years alone, there have been more than three dozen prosecutions around the U.S. in which rap lyrics written by amateur artists were used as evidence or otherwise played a prominent role.

Most everyone knows that “gangsta” rap lyrics tend to glorify violence and crime, and that the rappers are often boastful in their songs. What is less known by the general public, however, is that gangsta rappers often adopt an over-the-top, fictional persona that may have nothing to do with the way they live their real lives.

In 2011, a Virginia man was charged with killing a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old in a cold case that had occurred several years earlier. A detective assigned to the case saw a YouTube video of the defendant rapping about a murder; the details of which were somewhat similar to the double homicide he was investigating. The man was convicted but the case is being appealed.

Prosecutors and others who say that rap lyrics should be allowed as evidence argue that many of these amateur rappers write lyrics about real crimes that happened to victims they knew. But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union disagree, saying that rap lyrics are protected free speech, just like fictional crime novels or violent movies.

So can rap lyrics be considered a confession under certain circumstances? This is a debate that may go on for years with no clear answer.

Source: The New York Times, “Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun,” Lorne Manly, March 26, 2014

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