Assault against the First Amendment
The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the Vonte Skinner case, an artist whose rap lyrics were used against him in an attempted murder trial.
A New Jersey case rose to the state Supreme Court by calling into question the hotly debated line between creative expression and violence. In this case, the lyrics of rap artist Vonte Skinner. The case also rose to make national headlines in the New York Times, Al Jazeera America and the Huffington Post.
Skinner's case comes at the heels of the Michael Dunn conviction for attempted second-degree murder after he shot into an SUV of teens playing load music and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Dunn used Florida's notorious stand-your-ground legislation as defense—the same defense that freed George Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin.
Vonte Skinner was sentence to 30 year behind bars for attempted murder three years after a 2005 shooting left Lamont Peterson paralyzed blow the waist. Prosecutors used evidence from 13 pages of lyrics scrawled in a notebook that police found in the backseat of Skinner's girlfriend's car. The pen was the weapon that condemned Skinner, as no gun was ever found.
An appellate court overturned Skinner's sentence in 2012, the majority opinion writing, "we have a significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty if they had not been required to listen to the extended reading of these disturbing and highly prejudicial lyrics."
Next month, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear from both sides whether it was permissible to include the lyrics as evidence all along, a decision that could set precedent for the future.
Skinner isn't the only one to have "confessed" unwittingly in rhyme—17 others were prosecuted for violent lyrics, according to the ACLU.
Rap's bad rep
Critics of Skinner's conviction made their argument around the equating of rap with reality, a phenomenon fairly unique to the genre. (Songs from all-white groups such as "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People are rarely ever taken literally with lyrics like, "you better run, better run, faster than my bullet.")
In a 1996 study, participants were presented with the same lyrics and told one of three things—that the lyrics were by the actual folk artist, by a country singer, or by a rap artist. The three groups rated the same exactly lyrics differently based on who they perceived wrote them. Those told that the lyrics were rap said that they were offensive and threatening to society, while the others were less likely to characterize the lyrics as such.
More recently, writer David Dennis wrote an article for the Guardian arguing that rapper Macklemore's popularity in the Grammys was being used against other hip hop artists in what Dennis characterized as a "pseudo-gentrification" of a culture characterized by the media as violent, women-hating, homophobic and drug-induced—and black.
Dennis argued that the media hails Macklemore of the white Knight in shining armor riding in to bring civility to rap, ignoring thousands of black artists from the past three decades whose music revolves around culture, race, social justice, love or any number of themes employed by artists in every medium, whether poetry, literature, heavy metal or abstract painting.
A Dallas News article titled, "Macklemore shows hip-hop doesn't need to be homophobic, violent in Dallas concert," called Macklemore's style a "kinder, more cerebral brand of hip-hop" and mused about how it would have affected the "mind-numbing obsession with weed, booze and bling" that has plagued, apparently, all of rap in all of history.
Macklemore himself might agree—according to the Rolling Stone, he texted acclaimed artist Kendrick Lamar after the Grammys, writing, "You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It's weird and it sucks that I robbed you."
The right to write what you watch, not watch what you right
Skinner's case caught the attention of the ACLU, which, while not representing Skinner, has filed a brief with the Supreme Court of New Jersey that emphasized Skinner's First Amendment rights according to the New Jersey constitution.
"The threat of admitting fictional, artistic writings into evidence to prove generalized notions of 'state of mind' evidence in criminal trials will have such a chilling effect, and therefore requires 'breathing space,'" ALCU attorneys urged in the brief.
A New York Times opinion piece by two expert witness in similar cases wrote that judges and jurors, "rarely understand the genre conventions of gangsta rap or the industry forces that drive aspiring rapper to adopt this style."
While citing other cases across the country, the authors argued that a definitive ruling in New Jersey could "help turn the tide" against the legal use of rap music to criminalize artists.
Are local lyrics off limits?
Philadelphia isn't immune to this trend. In 2004, rap artist Beanie Sigel was sentenced to gun charges for unrelated lyrics that depicted violent imagery. And last year, a Philadelphia Citypaper article detailed events surrounding a 2010 case that used the lyrics of Ronald Thomas as evidence against him in a Strawberry Mansion murder—lyrics that the prosecutor called a "chilling telegram" and the defense attorney called an "exercise in artistic license."
The judge called Thomas guilty.