Musicians from all different walks of life create songs that feature lyrics describing the darker side of human nature, including crime, gangs, drugs and violence. For the most part, when singers perform songs with lyrics written in the first person, most people don't assume that the lyrics automatically represent the singer or a confession on behalf of a songwriter. Put simply, many song lyrics are at least partially fictitious and audiences treat them as such, separating the art from the artist.
When it comes to hip-hop lyrics, particularly in the genre of gangster rap, prosecutors, judges and police officers increasingly attribute fictional lyrics to real-life events. Sometimes, the link between lyrics and crime is obvious, as they indicate a clear lack of remorse on behalf of the perpetrator. However, a growing number of cases involve prosecutors and law enforcement inappropriately submitting rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.
The judiciary of some states has begun to question the validity of rap lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing, while other states continue to utilize hip-hop lyrics to prove criminal intent and gang affiliation. Some are clearly guilty of the crimes they rap about, but too many innocent hip-hop artists have been slapped with indictments based on fictional lyrics - content that reflects the consequences of systemic prejudice that inspired the criminal overtones of gangster rap lyrics in the first place.
10 Bobby Shmurda (Ackquille Pollard)
When Bobby Shmurda said "My music is straight facts... there are a lot of gangsters in my 'hood", he likely didn't expect that his interview with New York Magazine would have predicted the use of his lyrics against him in an indictment two months later.
He was arrested in December of 2014 and charged with 69 different counts, a list including murder, attempted murder, drug trafficking and weapons-related offenses.
During the raid, police allegedly found a concealed handgun on Shmurda's person, with a further search of the vehicle revealing another firearm and a small quantity of crack. Prosecutors will attempt to use Bobby Shmurda's lyrics, such as "we gon’ pull up in that hooptie like we cops on ‘em / With M16s, we gon’ put some shots on him”, as evidence that supports serious charges against him.
9 Francisco Calderon Mora
One of the earliest examples of rap lyrics submitted as evidence occurred during the 1994 trial of Francisco Calderon Mora, in which prosecutors pointed to handwritten lyrics found in a search of the defendant's home.
The prosecutors claimed that these lyrics proved his membership in the Southside Gang, identifying the person in the song as Mora due to references of his nickname and his part-time job as a DJ. In addition to receiving extra time due to membership in a gang, the lyrics were also submitted as motive for the crime due to his loyalty to the crew.
The judge ruled rap lyrics as admissible evidence, determining that "nothing makes these rap lyrics inherently unreliable... at least no more unreliable than rap lyrics in general", setting the precedent for the past two decades.
8 Dennis Greene Sr.
One of the most cut-and-dry cases to involve rap lyrics as evidence involved Dennis Greene Sr., who was convicted in 2003 for brutally murdering his wife, Tara Barrett, a high school math teacher.
Dennis attempted to flee the consequences of his crimes by hiding out in Chicago. While underground, he decided to make a series of five music videos that featured him drinking and smoking weed while performing freestyle.
On these tapes, he can be heard saying "I did the crime, I ain't doing the time" and "I cut her ******* neck with a sword", also talking about life on the lam, murder and the afterlife during the video.
7 Anthony Elonis
After his wife left with his children, Anthony Elonis began writing rap lyrics he claims were inspired by Eminem, describing a variety of terrible, violent things he would do to his ex-wife, writing that "there's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you".
Understandably, his wife was frightened by the lyrics and their escalating intensity, which became serious enough that he was arrested and charged with making threats towards his ex-wife, a kindergarten class and even FBI agents.
Before his appeal failed, before he received 44 months of jail time, he stated that "art is about pushing limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?"
6 Mr. Crazy (Othman Atiq)
Mr. Crazy is a seventeen-year-old rapper who speaks truth about life in Casablanca, Morocco's biggest city. He became the second artist to receive jail time for creative endeavors when his lyrics were deemed subversive enough to "harm public morality" and "offend a state institution", both of which are offenses that carry jail time.
The lyrics that were cited reveal harsh realities of poverty due to unemployment while hinting at extreme police corruption:
In my country / you steal or you deal / a stick-up here a dope sale there / all set up in advance / I got it worked out with the police/ bought the market in my neighbourhood / made the policeman my dog
The court listed eight offending songs, giving Mr. Crazy three months in jail for his music.
5 Laz Tha Boy (DeAndre Mitchell)
Laz Tha Boy is a Northern California hip-hop artist from Richmond who became entwined in an indictment that charged him with two counts of attempted murder in relation to a double shooting that took place in Antioch.
Prosecutors entered a trio of music videos featuring violent lyrics and Laz mimicking gunfire with his finger pointed at the camera. Even though the videos were created years before the shootings, they were used as proof of a criminal gang mindset due to his alleged involvement with Deep C, a Richmond street crew.
Laz has recorded many different types of hip-hop material but found the most success through lyrics that reference the gangster lifestyle. He ended up pleading guilty to assault with a firearm to avoid prosecution for attempted murder.
4 Vonte Skinner
It's been nearly a decade since Lamont Peterson was shot and paralyzed over a drug deal gone wrong. The accused, Vonte Skinner, has been through a series of lengthy trials since the incident occurred. Incredibly, he now faces a fourth trial for attempted murder after juries were twice deadlocked and a conviction overturned due to an appeal of the second trial.
The prosecution submitting 13 pages of handwritten hip-hop lyrics seized from Vonte's car were ruled as prejudicial, resulting in the successful appeal of his attempted murder conviction. Nonetheless, Vonte has been convicted of two counts of aggravated assault and faces up to 20 years in prison.
3 Ra Diggs (Ronald Herron)
Despite maintaining his innocence throughout the entire criminal trial, Ra Diggs was sentenced to 12 life sentences and an additional 105 years in prison for his role as a leader of the Murderous Mad Dawgs gang. The harsh sentence reflects his convictions for a trio of murders, drug trafficking, racketeering and other charges.
Part of the evidence used to prosecute Ra Diggs revolved around the submission of his music videos and rap lyrics, purported to show his involvement in heinous crimes. After the verdict was read, Ra Diggs said, "you guys sit here and continue to paint this picture that I'm the devil incarnate, the scourge of righteousness... it’s all crap." The judge was unimpressed, responding, "you have shown a complete lack of remorse for your abhorrent conduct."
2 Twain Gotti (Antwain Steward)
In Twain Gotti's track "Ride Out", the lyrics he spins focus on gang life, drug deals and violence, similar to many other hip-hop songs about gangsters. Four years after a double murder, Detective Carlos Nunez received a tip that lead him to believe the lyrics of the song bragged about the murders:
Listen, walked to your boy and I approached him /
Twelve midnight on his traphouse porch and /
Everybody saw when I mother—–’ choked him /
But nobody saw when I mother—–’ smoked him /
Roped him, sharpened up the shank then I poked him /
.357 Smith & Wesson bean scoped him
A few details outlined in the passage match details of the crime while other parts off the track don't reflect the murders at all. Twain Gotti was acquitted of murder but convicted of weapons charges with the jury recommending a sentence of up to 16 years.
1 Ronell Wilson (Rated R)
Ronell Wilson, nicknamed Rated R, become involved in a deal with undercover officers for the purchase of a Tec-9 submachine gun in a 2003 operation to capture gun dealers. Instead of going through with the deal, Ronell decided to execute the two operative by shooting them in the back of the head.
When he was arrested for the crime, Ronell had handwritten rap lyrics in his pocket that bragged about the shootings. Prosecutors entered these lyrics as evidence in the trial, helping to secure a guilty verdict. Currently, despite appeals, Ronell is on death row after handed the punishment of a death sentence for his role in the grisly murders.