Getting A Bad Rap?

This week, Lorne Manly reported (NYT) on the case of Antwain Steward, a Virginia man being tried for a double homicide. The twist? He raps under the name Twan Gotti, and the above video of his song, “Ride Out,” was used as evidence against him:

“But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him,” Mr. Steward sang on the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.”

Mr. Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the lyrics to be a boast that he was responsible and, based largely on the song,charged him last July with the crimes.

Manly notes that “the lyrics don’t neatly correspond to the crime: No knife was involved, the song mentions only one murder, and shell casings found at the scene were of different calibers from the gun cited in the song.” Simon Waxman responds:

I imagine prosecutors have more to go on than rap lyrics alone, but it’s easy to see how, in these cases, rap is the new hoodie—a symbol of black male aggression.

Rap is frequently viewed as threatening; listening to it is taken as a form of misbehavior to be corrected. Witness the case of Michael Dunn, the Florida man who murdered seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis and shot at Davis’s friends after they refused to turn down the “rap crap” they were blasting in their car. Dunn believed the teens were a danger to him. Would he have felt the same way had they been listening to the Beach Boys?

Pointing to a double-standard, he goes on to pose a question – “what are we to make of murder ballads, those mainstays of folk and country music,” such as “Down in the Willow Garden,” performed by the very non-threatening Everly Brothers, among others? Nathan S. at Refined Hype addressed Steward’s case last year:

I feel the need to pause here and make it clear that it’s unclear just how much police considered [Steward’s] lyrics when considered him a suspect for Horton and Dean’s murders. The media essentially makes it sound like the cops conducted their investigation on Rap Genius, stopped when they found lyrics that seemed to describe the murders, and then arrested the corresponding rapper.

In reality, I’m willing to bet the truth is far more complicated and that “Ride Out” was only one piece of evidence among many, and almost definitely the most important piece.

Nevertheless, he thinks that “using rap lyrics as evidence in court feels shaky at best, and a violation of the 1st Amendment at worst.”