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MUSIC LYRICS IN COURT

The connection between lyricism and the justice system


By Carolyn Kravets


Graphic By Ellie McCarron

In 1993, Snoop Dogg was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.


Yet, it was his bodyguard, McKinley Lee, who pulled the trigger in the drive-by shooting, killing a rival gang member, with Snoop purportedly at the wheel. Shortly after the incident, the rapper released Murder Was The Case, a short film and soundtrack about his fictitious death and resurrection. 


Using Snoop’s recent release and industry “gangster” persona against him, it didn’t take long for a prosecution team to build their case around the shooting death. In court, Snoop was represented by Johnnie Cochran, the criminal defense attorney famous for O.J. Simpson’s acquittal. In 1996, Snoop, too, was acquitted of all charges. 


Like many artists in the rap/hip-hop genre, Snoop Dogg’s lyricism and delivery reflect life experiences, demographic sentiments, and social critiques. To use lyrics in court proceedings would require an analysis of the context and intent of his expression. 


Attorneys are storytellers in the same vein rappers are, creating a narrative through worldbuilding in (often) opposing frameworks. A lyric itself can’t act as inciting evidence against its speaker, but it can be referenced in demonstrating intent, proving a direct link to an existing criminal case, or establishing character. 


Similarly, Yung Thug, Gunna, and artists connected with the music label YSL were indicted on criminal gang-related conspiracy charges in 2023. Lyrics and selected scenes from Thug’s music videos were entered into evidence by prosecution teams, including the song “Slime Shit.”   


“I’m in the VIP and I got that pistol on my hip.

You prayin’ that you live I’m prayin’ that I hit.”


The momentum behind creative talent is often lived source material that the artist can draw upon. As a listener, it’s apparent when a rapper doesn’t have anything to rap about. Impassioned life experience dries up. Bars about relationships only go so far.  


But these lyrics can be fictionalized.


Nobody thought Bob Marley shot the sheriff. Heck, in that situation, I’d spare the deputy, too. When we turn back and weaponize vocalized artistic expression, the same lyrics that build up a public persona end up tearing down the private individual.


Rapper Tay-K was involved in a 2016 home invasion robbery that killed 21-year-old Ethan Walker. Placed on house arrest, Tay-K rose to fame after he cut off his ankle monitor, skipped town, and recorded “The Race” while on the lam. 


The song blatantly references murder, shootouts, and evading authority: 


“Your boys deep? Well, let’s get to subtractin’

Smith & Wesson made my .9 with some compassion.”


The legal team representing the Walkers felt that “People and corporations shouldn’t profit from violent crimes against the innocent.” Their sentiment reflects broader concerns about the glorification of criminal behavior. 


Tay-K sits at the intersection of crime, art, and societal values. When lyrics are brought into court, the justice system seems to operate perpendicular to this cultural intersection. Repurposing expression not intended for legal scrutiny further dislocates artistic freedom and legal accountability. Rolling Stone captured the sentiment accurately: “The rapper finds [themselves] squeezed between the criminal-justice system and the rap world, neither of which is as humane as it claims to be.”

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