Rap on Trial

Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America

A groundbreaking exposé about the alarming use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence to convict and incarcerate young men of color

“If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” —Rapper Ice-T, on the persona he adopted in the song “Cop Killer”

Should Johnny Cash have been charged with murder after he sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? Few would seriously subscribe to this notion of justice. Yet in 2001, a rapper named Mac whose music had gained national recognition was convicted of manslaughter after the prosecutor quoted liberally from his album Shell Shocked. Mac was sentenced to thirty years in prison, where he remains. And his case is just one of many nationwide.

Over the last three decades, as rap became increasingly popular, prosecutors saw an opportunity: they could present the sometimes violent, crime-laden lyrics of amateur rappers as confessions to crimes, threats of violence, evidence of gang affiliation, or revelations of criminal motive—and judges and juries would go along with it. Detectives have reopened cold cases on account of rap lyrics and videos alone, and prosecutors have secured convictions by presenting such lyrics and videos of rappers as autobiography. Now, an alarming number of aspiring rappers are imprisoned. No other form of creative expression is treated this way in the courts.

Rap on Trial places this disturbing practice in the context of hip hop history and exposes what’s at stake. It’s a gripping, timely exploration at the crossroads of contemporary hip hop and mass incarceration.

Praise

Rap on Trial offers captivating insight on how police, prosecutors, and judges silence and penalize Black music artists. It provides not only a rousing call to action but also a compelling blueprint for necessary change.”
—Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
“An illuminating, powerful, and disturbing exposé of how hip hop’s often raw, fantastical lyrics are taken out of context to criminalize black and brown youth. Rap on Trial is required reading for anyone who cares about justice and racial equity.”
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
“Nielson and Dennis have blessed us with a smart and engaging book that will make readers mad as hell. An essential read for activists, artists, hip hop heads, and all concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, Rap on Trial does it ‘for the culture.’”
—Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men
“By highlighting race in this brilliant, well-researched argument, Rap On Trial takes its rightful place within the pantheon of groundbreaking works that unmask the built-in biases of our legal systems.”
—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Jay-Z: Made in America
“An exceptional, nuanced look at how the state transformed an influential art form into a tool of mass incarceration. Rap on Trial is an essential reminder of the importance of First Amendment protections for the most vulnerable among us.”
—Anthony D. Romero, executive director, ACLU