Rap doesn’t hide its hardships.
When the music sounds like listening to the survival stories of soldiers walking through hell, they usually are. When you have young, black rappers coming from neighborhoods and areas built on fire and madness, their music takes the shape of that merciless trap, where the drugs are being sold, guns are being busted and survival isn’t certain. Enemies and Hennessey, fatherless homes and dead presidents, the world the way they see it, the world the way they've lived it. These are the tales they tell, through this art form they can escape. Music can open up doors for progression in a world intent on shutting them out, a path that leads away from confinement and caskets. They sell the stories of their misfortune, receiving profit for their problematic purgatory. Rappers are going from homeless to mansions, dealing drugs to selling millions, this is the industry for the underdog. But the transition from the block to the Bugatti isn’t always smooth; the same persona that took you from the trap encases you in a new one.
Particularly in a genre that can fixate on "realness," song lyrics are expected to exactly parallel the livelihood of the recording artist. It wasn’t a coincidence that Pitchfork took Chief Keef to the shooting range for a feature that leads to a violation of Keef's parole and more jail time for the Chicago emcee. His lyrical content deals with gun violence, he’s from a city plagued by gun violence, they didn’t see a 17-year-old kid, but a caricature that wasn’t a stranger to artillery. Their intent was to further sell an image, polarizing the rapper made infamous for shooting at police officers.
In an age where everyone's always on camera, the line between life imitating art and art imitating life is more blurred than ever. When Noisey went to visit Migos at their mansion, they were greeted by the celebrated trifecta and enough guns to start a baby war: machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, the kind of weaponry that you only see in Call of Duty.
I noticed people on my timeline blaming Noisey for Migos' recent arrest this past weekend for gun and drug possession. Noisey has a tendency to highlight the darkest corners of the world, documenting and glorifying the dangerous. I’m almost certain their presence is what encouraged the trio to expose a collection of guns that should’ve stayed hidden. Yet, this is the kind of imagery you hear in their music. A trip to Starbucks would’ve left viewers puzzled, you can’t just go from trapping out of bandos to White Chocolate Mocha nonfat milk with an extra pump of white chocolate. Footage like what Noisey captured confirms their lyrics are authentic and real. Even though they moved into the suburbs, the mentality hasn’t changed. Is it worth impressing fans if you attract law enforcement?
Back in 2006, an FBI analyst recommended that prosecutors and law enforcement look for rap lyrics when investigating crimes because of the potential for leads and confessions. Since then it's become an increasingly common law enforcement strategy, officers are now spending hours combing YouTube searching for supporting evidence. In their eyes, rap isn’t an art form; it’s another way to lock voices away. We witnessed this with Bobby Shmurda, Mitch catching a body, and a plethora of other lyrics used as part of his December arrest. The same viral hit that got him signed to a record deal assisted in getting him locked behind bars.
Lorne Manly's brilliant "Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun" article for The New York Times is full of information on how law enforcement and prosecutors are using rap lyrics as prominent evidence. Reported last year, there were at least three dozen cases in the past two years alone where rap lyrics were included in criminal cases. Virginia rapper Twain Gotti who was arrested for a double homicide based on lyrics in his song "Ride Out." The case was considered cold, seven years with no evidence, but everything changed once a detective stumbled upon his song. It was enough to get him incarcerated; Twain was cleared of the murders but given a 16-year jail term for firearms offenses. The lines between art and real life were no longer intellectual debates, they were being examined in court with real-life consequences.
Everyone from amateur rappers to bubbling breakout artists are being targeted by law enforcement. Curtis Williams of Two-9 and Key!'s home was recently raided by police and the two were taken into custody on felony charges. Details are scarce, but the two are currently released. San Diego-based rapper Tiny Doo is facing nine counts of criminal street gang conspiracies, along with 14 other alleged gang members who seemingly attempted to increase their stature and respect following a rash of shootings in the city in 2013.
Despite not having any criminal record, it's Tiny Doo's violent rap lyrics that has him facing 25 years to life in prison if convicted under a California law that makes it illegal to benefit from gang activities. Cameron D'Ambrosio was arrested in 2013 for posting a rap lyric on Facebook that officers deemed a “terroristic threat.” Last year, Rashee Beasley and Jamal Knox, two Pittsburgh men were convicted of intimidation, terrorist threats, and other charges after releasing a video that threatened police officers.
Knox told the judge he’s also made music about non-violence; and that while he didn’t intend for this video to be released, he felt he had to maintain his rapper image. But he accepted responsibility for it.
“He had no intention of making this song, in the format that it was, in public,” said Knox’s defense attorney, Al Burke. “He had no intentions of bringing harm to the police, but certainly the lyrics reflect his attention to things that have happened in the community.”
Song lyrics are art, not confessions, but that’s not how law enforcement and prosecutors perceive them. In their eyes, rappers are no different than O-Dog from Menace to Society. The way he flaunted the videotape of him murdering the husband and wife in the gas station, rappers exude the same boastful braggings in their songs. But the character of the rapper shouldn’t be determined by the lyrics they write. If Leigh Whannell isn’t behind bars for writing the script for Saw, if Johnny Cash never saw a homicide investigation, if Jack Keroac's On the Road is hailed as an American classic not evidence of rampant drug possession and criminal activity, Twain Gotti shouldn’t be under investigation because of rhymes he’s written. Rashee Beasley and Jamal Knox should be able to express their frustrations without worrying about being embraced as wrongdoings.
It’s hard to solely place blame on the police and courts when so many are at fault. Rappers feel like their brand is bigger than their humanity. That’s celebrity culture, you have to be the person that attracts fixation. On social media, in your music, onstage, in documentaries for Noisey, you are an entertainer for their admiration. They forget they aren’t immune to the laws of the world. Then labels take advantage, seeking out the ambitious, inner-city kids and molding them for stardom but leaving them stranded once they see flashing lights. They have no problem selling the stories of crime as long as those stories are profitable. They don’t care if the lyrics are real or fictional until the law arrives. Police and prosecutors refuse to see beyond their own preconceptions. Possibly their own racism. They have a romanticized image that is as fictional as some of the lyrics they play for convictions. Not everything rapped is autobiographical, is it that hard to believe creative writers can use their talents to rap? Unless you start running into the homes of murder mystery authors, rap needs the same immunity as every other creative expression.
"No other fictional form — musical, literary or cinematic — is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous." —Killer Mike's Op-Ed
The media is also at fault. Noisey's work was aimed at taking YouTube tourists through an expedition of the hood. They capture all this footage, label it as a documentary, yet only focus on the people who perpetuate stereotypes. Atlanta is more than crack rocks and rap beef, the city is rich with culture, hundreds of artists, many of whom have nothing to do with guns and drugs, but they choose to only keep us fixated on the negative. And my piece on Kendrick has similarities with what officers do to rappers, slicing and dicing their lyrics until it’s something they can sell it as vicious and heinous. My intentions behind examining those Kendrick lyrics was to better understand his art, to dig deeper into his music; not any potential criminal record, but for an officer that motivation is completely reversed, entirely focused on "real life" evidence, not art. Doing that article lead me to write this.
A$AP Rocky expressed an interesting outlook during his recent interview with Complex, he claims the term “rapper” doesn’t mean anything honorable. This mentality completely belittles the idea of rappers as artists. No matter what kind of canvas it’s presented on, rap is often a medium for imaginative self-expression. Rappers are artists, what they do over beats is no different than what folks singers do over acoustic guitars, what poets pour into notebooks. The biggest difference is that the world perceives poets as these thoughtful, creative writers while rappers are assumed to all be glorified gang bangers. Outside of the rap industry, our own country looks at rappers as menaces to society. Maybe that’s just how America views young, black men in general.
There are more murderers with badges than with microphones, but the police's actions are always justified, they say they fear for their lives, that their shootings don't warrant arrest. Yet when black men document a lifetime of fear in their music, they want to put them in a cage.
By Yoh, aka Yohseph Gordon-Levitt, aka @Yoh31