In 2000, McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr. was 22 years old when he was arrested for murder.
A 19-year-old was shot in Slidell, Louisiana where Phipps was scheduled to perform, and police soon focused on the artist as the suspect. A man was working security in the place He admitted that he killed the teenagerbut prosecutors are still pushing forward with Phipps’ trial.
the authorities There is no physical evidence Or a weapon that ties Phipps to murder, but they had something else to bring to court: the words of Rap Phipps.
“Kill, kill, kill, kill”; Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head. These are some of the words this defendant chose to rap when he performs,” the attorney general told an all-white jury, according to a recent report. NPR . Report.
Phipps was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Last week, lawmakers in California Passed successfully The new regulations are intended to restrict the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal court, the first legislation of its kind expected to become law in the United States.
Experts say that while the impact of the new policy will be narrow, it is a step forward in putting protective barriers on the prosecution practice that it has often worked to achieve. Criminalization of artistic expression of young blacks and latinos.
as such Prosecution In Georgia, they are facing increasing scrutiny over their use of rap lyrics in a recent gangster plot cases against Gunna and thug youthAdvocates and artists hope the reforms will help expose this tactic.
“There are still people in prison who have been affected by this,” said Phipps, who was released last year after two decades in prison. “It is an attack on freedom of expression and especially black art.”
It is effective for prosecutors
track researchers More than 500 cases have been reported of prosecutors using rap as evidence against defendants in the past 30 years, although that number is likely significantly understated.
Eric Nelson, a University of Richmond professor and co-author of the book said: Rap on trial.
The lyrics are usually cited to suggest “gang belonging”, prove crimes and intent, or show rappers “violent” character or threats, and the strategy was used Against famous artists like Snoop Dogg in the 1990s, Drakeo Governor in 2018 And the Tekashi 6ix9ine in 2019.
Jack Lerner, University of California, Irvine Professor of Law and expert on this topicThis tactic is used all over the United States, he said, referring to 2004 booklet From the US Attorney’s Research Institute, which has encouraged the use of song lyrics in search warrants and trials to “invade and exploit the true character of the defendant” and present him as “a rag-clad criminal who throws a gang banner” to compare to a “gently designed … altar boy” in a courtroom .
Although there have been rare cases where words or music videos may be associated with specific criminal offenses, experts say research shows that their use in court has often biased jurors against young people of color.
Multiple studies have found that associating defendants with rap creates a strong negative bias in juries and that people are more inclined to do so. imagine feeling Words are violent, offensive, threatening, dangerous and literal if from rap, compared to other genres.
“Once you rap, you jeopardize the defense’s ability to get a fair trial,” Lerner said.
Researchers have too have found Widespread Examples of prosecutors who take song lyrics out of context, present them in inaccurate and misleading ways, treat fictional lines as facts or confessions, and use music to expand charges and secure convictions and lengthy sentences.
“Prosecutors talk to each other and see that this is a very effective tactic, and it is unlikely that it will be overturned on appeal. So why not do this if your goal is to lock up people, whether they are guilty or not?” said Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond. He wrote about a murder in California in 2013 Experience Where the prosecution tried a 14-year-old boy as an adult, claim The lyrics to the songs in his notebook were “biographical journals”, including lyrics from other artists that were wrongly attributed to him.
In the case of Mac Phipps, prosecutors presented the artist’s words as evidence that he was a criminal, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence.
Witnesses later testified against him Signed declarations Saying that the police forced them to lie, including by A threat them arrested. Last year, the Louisiana governor granted Phipps clemency, which did not overturn his conviction but allowed him to return home after 21 years.
“It was so surreal,” Phipps, 45, said of hearing prosecutors recite his words in court. “Hip hop was my approach to city life, it was my livelihood, it was the way I took care of my family. To use my art against me in court, I felt like I had been bumped into the face by the thing I loved so much.”
The song cited by the prosecution, Morda, Morda, kill, killHe co-wrote it with another artist “as a combat rap band and playing to the lyrics of the military rhythm, as when soldiers walk,” he explained. “He was basically advertising my lyrical dominance over other rappers.”
“I had no criminal record, had no previous incidents or violence in the past, so all they could turn to, in their view, were the lyrics. And for them it was effective in convicting an innocent person.”
Phipps also wondered if members of groups like The Killers or The Chicks (who coined the lyrics, “Earl Had to Die”) would have their work used against them in court.
“What most rappers say is either straightforward fantasy or very exaggerated. We are artists. You don’t have to paint reality with art. You can paint the world as you like to see it. Art gives us a chance to escape reality. When this escape mechanism is criminalized, it is that Brutal act, adding, “I’m still trying to find my voice after being silenced for 21 years.”
“I’ll say what I want”
New California Law It places limits on when prosecutors can cite the “creative expression” of defendants in court. It applies to all types of music, dance, film, and other art forms, although the law recognizes that the use of rap lyrics in particular creates a significant risk of bias.
The law requires judges to hold a hearing without a jury present to consider the admissibility of the evidence and whether it would “inject racial bias into the proceedings.”
hanging law Project New York, which was introduced earlier this year, would ban rap lyrics unless there is “convincing evidence of an actual, factual relationship between creative expression and the facts of the case”.
Federal lawmakers introduced legislation similar to the California bill, and the Big Brand and Registration Academy has backed repairs.
Researcher Nelson said he hoped California law would broaden public awareness on the issue, but was skeptical that it would have much of an impact on preventing the misuse of rap lyrics.And the Where judges can still agree to practice after a hearing.
Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the California representative behind the bill, said lawmakers had to leave some “room for maneuver” so that the defendants’ work could be cited when relevant, and so that it was admissible to the courts and the governor. “This is a way to prevent overzealous prosecutors from using creative expression, which should never be banned.”
The Jones Sawyer bill has passed the California Senate and Parliament, and the governor has until the end of September to sign it into law.
The California District Bar Association said it had not taken a position on the bill.
Brandon Duncan is a San Diego rapper known as Tiny Doo from prosecutors Accused of a gang plot in 2014, citing his words as evidence that he was connected to crimes he did not commit. Duncan said he was overjoyed to pass the legislation.
Duncan spent eight months in prison before a judge dismissed the charges against him.
He said that when he got out of prison, he was nervous to start composing his music again. “I got to a point where I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “But then, damn it, I’ll do whatever I want and say whatever the hell I want to say. I’ll be as creative as I want. I’m not here to hurt anyone or do anything illegal. Leave me alone.”
When people come together and fight for something, they listen to us. We’ve come a long way since they told me they could put me in jail for the rest of my life for my rap lyrics.”