Law enforcement agencies across the country are using lyrics by amateur gangsta rappers as evidence of crimes as serious as murder, the New York Times reports. For example, four years after a murder in Newport News, Virginia, a detective newly assigned to the cold case found a YouTube video in which an aspiring rapper boasted of committing a crime:
“But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him,” [Antwain] Steward sang on the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.” Mr. Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the lyrics to be a boast that he was responsible and, based largely on the song, charged him last July with the crimes.
Even though, the paper reports, “the lyrics don’t neatly correspond to the crime: No knife was involved, the song mentions only one murder, and shell casings found at the scene were of different calibers from the gun cited in the song.” There have been dozens of similar cases in the last two years alone, according to the Times, but critics say that many hip-hop performers are just artists assuming larger-than-life personas, the same way Johnny Cash once “confessed” to shooting a man in Reno, or even Carrie Underwood to destroying her boyfriend’s car; they say Rick Ross, before he was famous, was a corrections officer, not a Los Angeles coke kingpin like his namesake, and that Dostoyevsky shouldn’t ever have been suspected of criminality just because he invented Raskalnikov.
The anxiety that artists’ art could be used against them appears often: in Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone is a crime writer whose latest book details a murder just like the one that befell a recent lover; in the television series Castle, a detective teams up with a crime writer whose stories are starting to really happen; in The Raven, a near-death Edgar Allan Poe is brought in to help catch a serial killer whose crimes resemble murders in Poe’s stories. The low-budget Chris Sarandon horror movie Reaper has a similar plot, as do lots of other movies that I can’t remember, in which writers are either suspected of crimes or brought in to help solve crimes because they resemble those from their books. (Oh! Also, the Tales from the Crypt episode in which Harry Anderson’s EC Comics-esque drawings come to life and, without his knowledge, kill his enemies.)
The difference between the people facing prosecution now and the examples above is that the latter are predominately white and the former are black—not only that, but they embrace an art form practiced primarily by African-Americans. It’s true that some gang members may boast of their criminal activity in song, and police would be wise to follow the lead of detectives in New York, where they “monitor rap videos on YouTube to study the pecking order on the streets and grudges between gangs that might have spurred crimes,” the Times reports. But using lyrics not as potential leads but as evidence of wrongdoing crosses a line, discouraging free expression, potentially criminalizing nothing more serious than artistic creation.
When people say racism still exists, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about: white people alienated from a mode of expression popular within another culture, using their power to hold what they don’t understand against those who create it.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart