Negative perceptions of rap threaten to bias jurors in criminal trials involving rappers

June 2017

Police suspected that Olutosin Oduwole, a student at Southern Illinois University, was plotting a campus mass shooting, and in 2007 arrived at his dorm room door to arrest him. In the trial, prosecutors used a set of violent rap lyrics as evidence against him.

But using such lyrics against defendants is fraught with peril, says Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society. Kubrin conducted a study asking participants to evaluate a set of lyrics and determine how threatening and offensive they were. Even though all the participants read the same set of lyrics, those who were told the lyrics were rap consistently evaluated them more negatively.

The conclusion: the label "rap" carries baggage for people. And that baggage can bias jurors and judges during criminal trials involving rappers.

"Right now, prosecutors are relying too heavily on a form of artistic expression that is fictional, that has a lot of artistic conventions, knowing full well that the vast majority of jurors and judges don't really know what the artistic conventions of rap music are," Kubrin told NRP's Hidden Brain. "The prosecutors in this sense are taking shortcuts, and it's at the expense of people's lives."

Other musical genres like rock, heavy metal and punk aren't treated the same way; only rappers have their lyrics used as evidence against them.

"Not a lot of people know this is happening. I'm not sure we quite understand the implications of using rap lyrics as evidence, and what it means for defendants," Kubrin said. "Can they get a fair trial? Can we ensure that their First Amendment rights are protected when these lyrics have the potential to bias jurors?"

Listen to the story.