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Rap Snitch Knishes: How courthouses are using lyrics to put rappers in jail

Since its development in the 70s and 80s, rap music as it stands has always been viewed as a controversial topic, widely towards the white society. With its negative connotations including violence, danger and threat, rap and drill music in both the US and UK is now being targeted, with arrests being made to rappers for their lyrical content.

When Criminology professor and rap music scholar Charis Kubrin was asked to be an expert witness in a case involving an aspiring rapper who had been charged with making a terrorist threat, she jumped at the opportunity to provide her insights as it would have been her first official witness case. The evidence that she reviewed were six lines of text that read “glock to the head of, send $2 to a PayPal account, if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in the next seven days, then a murderous rampage similar to the Virginia Tech shooting will occur at another highly populated university, this is not a joke.”


Kubrin admitted that when she first saw those words on that page on their own, she was certain that this person was guilty. However, she also knew that she needed to be able to see all the evidence before she could pass judgement.


Upon further investigation, she discovered that this piece of paper was found by the Southern Illinois University Police as they found an abandoned car, searched it, and found common university student possessions inside but a piece of paper was tucked away in the driver’s seat. With the one side portraying this threatening text, on the other side was what appeared to be rap lyrics. Kubrin stated that there were other lines that read things like “Let them booty cheeks hop, so pop it mami pop…follow that thing to the ground when she drop it”. As soon as she saw these words compared to what was on the other side, she came to the conclusion that this text wasn’t really a person calculating a tragic terror incident, but instead that these were lyrics of an aspiring gangsta rapper.


Unfortunately, this was not the case with how the police saw it. With those words being enough to acquire a search warrant to go to the defendant’s room on campus, they found notebooks brimming with lyrics that were violent or misogynistic thus, allowing student Olutosin Oduwole to be charged with attempting to carry out a terrorist attack. Whilst Kubrin laboriously analysed all of Oduwole’s notebooks, she found notes from classes, letters to a girl but also, the terms of a rap contract that he dreamed of landing one day.


She was able to fully share her findings on the day of his trial that Oduwole’s lyrics weren’t at all supposed to be taken out of context, but instead he was mimicking what other gangsta rappers usually pen in their own lyrics, portraying violence and glorifying guns. Whilst we know how misogynistic rap music can be, these typically are the types of tracks that do well in the industry. Notably, when Kubrin was faced with the jury during the trial, she also noticed the lack of diversity in the courtroom. With Oduwole ultimately sentenced to five years in prison because he was also in possession of a firearm, Kubrin wondered whether it would have been the same outcome if the defendant was white.

This case was in 2011 and soon after, it became more apparent that rap lyrics used in court cases were popping up in their hundreds. It was also even more so apparent that there was no other genre of music where lyrics were used against musicians such as in rock, punk or heavy metal. With the unfair prejudice leading to people such as Oduwole being jailed for what is essentially artistic expression, even the UK government is now beginning to crack down on rappers who incite violence in their lyrics, banning other rappers for entering the UK (see Tyler, The Creator) and even monitoring them to the extent that they need to notify the police if they plan on releasing music (see Digga D).


Drill rappers from London Skengdo and AM have also been subject to being targeted for their music. The pair were sentenced to nine months in prison. The reason? For performing a particular track at a London concert.

With drill music constantly under fire for their concoction of violent imagery, Skengdo and AM’s music speak on their historic clashes with gangs in and around the city of London, so much so that The Met even pushed for them to be banned from entering South London postcode SE1. Even though this injunction was rejected, other injunctions that were agreed upon included performing or broadcasting songs that mentioned rival crews or even describing “intrusions on to any other gang or group’s perceived territory” and including their postcodes. With The Met also stating that the pair performing the track ‘Attempted 1.0' and sharing clips on social media, incited and encouraged violence even though it was argued that both Skengdo and AM have never been convicted of a violent crime.


AM even mentioned that they don’t really have a lot of power against the police and that authorities have been able to take advantage of this. “They have imposed something that will give us a criminal record just for making music… We were forced into a corner.” ‘Attempted 1.0’ came as a hit track from 2018 and therefore it was expected for the track to be performed at their shows however, there isn’t any evidence that censoring rappers and lyrics will stop crime therefore, the argument against it proves to be weak.


With drill music being a subgenre of rap and originating from the south side of Chicago around the 2010’s, its popularity flourished with the combination of heavy beats and austere lyrical content that intrigued listeners to hear about the lives that these have rappers endured. With the expansion of drill music taking over music video platforms such as YouTube, former Met police chief Cressida Dick blamed drill for the rise of crime and was able to persuade YouTube to remove up to 90 videos.


However, rap music from its core was based on representing what people in under-represented areas were going through and telling their stories of what they had to endure. Punk music, for example, is a widely liked genre, beginning in the 60s/70s and directly going against the grain with musicians constantly speaking their mind. Heavy metal, also beginning around the same time constantly recycles themes of violence, substance abuse and perversion.


So, what’s really the issue here?