Rap on Trial, Charis Kubrin

2105 Cicero Award WinnerCharis Kubrin, Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, U.C. Irvine, is a renowned specialist in criminology and law. In this TEDx talk she shares with passion and mastery a story of Rap on Trial that elucidates the fundamental issues our society faces in relation to freedom of speech, liberty, equality and justice. This speech was written with the help of Barbara Seymour Giordano and was awarded the 2015 Cicero Speechwriting Award for a controversial or highly politicized topic. The full text follows and a video of the presentation is at the end of this posting. It is reprinted here with express permission.

Rap on Trial, Charis Kubrin

Have you ever been given a set of facts, and based on that evidence, come to a conclusion that made you believe you were absolutely right?

A few years back a defense attorney contacted me to ask if I would be an expert witness in a case involving an aspiring rapper who had been charged with making a terrorist threat. This would be my first official expert witness case — so I jumped at the chance! And as a Professor of Criminology as well as a Rap Music Scholar… I could hardly wait to share my expertise.

So as soon as I received the evidence, I immediately got to work. Now, the entire case came to trial as a result of these 6 short lines of text — and here’s how they read:

glock to the head of
SEND $2 to . . . . paypal account
if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in the next
7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the
VT shooting will occur at another prestigious
highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!

OK, admittedly these words sitting on the page all by their lonesome make it pretty darn easy to jump to a conclusion about what this rapper was up to, right? And I’ve got to admit that when I read these words for the first time, even my gut reaction was — this guy is so guilty!

But I knew from my years of research that you can’t pass judgment until all the evidence has been reviewed.

So I began by trying to figure out how these words had landed in the hands of the Southern Illinois University campus police. One day while on patrol, the campus police spotted an abandoned car, searched it, and found typical college student possessions inside — along with a piece of paper inconspicuously tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console.

On one side of the folded up paper were the 6 lines of threatening text. And when you flipped the paper over, there were line after line of what appeared to be rap lyrics—such as:

let them booty cheeks hop, so
Pop it mami pop it
I’ma do it like this daddy
follow that thang to da ground when she drop it.

(Probably not a song destined for the top 40, right?)

The minute I saw these rhyming rap lyrics on the opposite side of the threatening text — I had a sneaking suspicion that this college student was not a plotting terrorist, but most likely an aspiring gangsta rapper.

However, that’s not how the police saw it … these 6 lines of text were enough evidence to get a search warrant, and comb through the defendant, Olutosin Oduwole’s, campus apartment. Inside they found several other notebooks filled with his violent and misogynistic rap lyrics and… a handgun.

As a result, the police charged Oduwole — a college student with no prior convictions — with attempting to communicate a terrorist threat. While Oduwole admitted to the gun possession charges, he adamantly denied he was a terrorist planning to carry out acts of violence. Oduwole stood by his story that the text was simply notes for a new rap song.

In preparation for testifying, I reviewed hundreds of pages of evidence from Oduwole’s notebooks —

As I painstakingly analyzed the notebook evidence line by line wading through stanza after stanza of misogynistic and violent lyrics, I would land upon an occasional random page — notes from class, a letter to a girl, and the terms of the rap contract Oduwole one day dreamed of landing.

After careful review of these notebooks I came to the conclusion that Oduwole was unequivocally NOT a terrorist. He was just a wanna-be rapper whose offensive and shocking lyrics were — out of a fear of terrorism — being completely misinterpreted.
Trial day arrived and after months of research on this case, I was ready to share my findings — that is, until I entered the courtroom and stood face to face with an all-white, middle-aged jury. It was 2011… I could barely believe my eyes.

But despite the lack of diversity, I was sure the evidence would prevail. So when I took the stand, I spent two hours educating the jury on the finer points of gangsta rap — for example, in the rap world the more violent the lyrics, the more respect you’ll have in the rap community. And the more misogynistic and violent your music? Well, the more songs you’ll sell. Considering the business, it was no surprise that Oduwole’s lyrics portrayed a violent persona and the glorification of guns — both of which are staples of gangsta rap.

I also pointed out that not all lyrics rhyme or flow — and that the 6 lines of text that the prosecution had rested their case on could be what’s referred to in the music business as an “Intro or Outro” — or unrhymed spoken words that either introduce or conclude a song to give it more edge or make it more memorable.
In my professional opinion, the 6 lines of text were most likely ideas or concepts for a song, or… were the Intro or Outro to a song — not a terrorist threat.
When I left the stand I was completely confident that I’d gotten all my points across and compellingly delivered my ideas.

And in just three short hours — the verdict. Guilty.

Oduwole was sentenced to 5 years and immediately whisked away to prison.

I was completely stunned. How was the jury unable see the truth?

For weeks I replayed the case over and over in my mind — how was the prosecution’s argument more persuasive than my highly researched evidence?

And then it dawned on me — while I had presented the cold, hard facts…the prosecuting attorney dialed up the courtroom emotion and played to the jury’s fears. At one point he actually slammed down Oduwole’s gun on the witness stand, leaned in close, stared me dead in the eye, and asked, “Now does THIS GUN change your opinion about what is written in the 6 lines of text?”

It was in that moment it became clear how the prosecution swayed the jury — emotions trump logic every time.

And the power of emotions lead me to this question — would this case be the same if the defendant was white?

I mean think about it —

STUDENT + WHITE MALE + RAP = WANNA BE RAPPER

But if you add GUN to the equation, well… that white student has lost his way, and needs counseling.

On the other hand, if you swap out black male for white it adds up to this:

STUDENT + BLACK MALE + RAP = HEADED FOR TROUBLE.

And if you add GUN, well … then he’s certainly = A THUG, DESTINED FOR PRISON.

It’s been three years since I testified in the Oduwole case — and since then I’ve wondered…is he the only aspiring rapper this has happened to?

Knowing the system failed this young man and sent him to prison for terrorism troubled me to the core — and thankfully, I was not alone.

The verdict drew widespread scrutiny from first amendment rights’ attorneys, journalists, musicians, and academics alike. There were op-eds featuring this case, including several by an assistant professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in rap and hip hop culture.

Within short order this professor and I joined forces and discovered that rap lyrics are showing up with alarming regularity as evidence in courtrooms across the country — in fact, our research has uncovered hundreds of these cases.

And what’s so crazy is that it’s virtually unheard of for musicians outside of rap to have their lyrics introduced as evidence against them in court — not for rock, not for punk, not EVEN for heavy metal.

Over the last year my colleague and I have publicized our research findings — and just last month, we wrote a brief to educate the Justices about gangsta rap for a rap lyrics case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In all our work, we argue that rather than treat rap music as an art form, in these cases prosecutors portray rap lyrics as autobiographical — in other words, they want the jury to believe that these rappers are just sharing the stories of their lives.

The trouble with labeling rap as autobiographical is that the characters being portrayed in rap music are often nothing like the actual artists.
Seriously, if rappers were guilty of even the tiniest fraction of violence they project in their music, well, we’d all be in really big trouble.

And in some cases like Oduwole’s, the lyrics themselves are the crime — being positioned as an imminent danger to the public. But no matter the prosecution’s tactics, introducing lyrics as evidence in court…almost always results in unfair prejudice.

Unfortunately, this fact isn’t always clear to judges and juries —
In case after case, the results have been devastating for the accused — defendants have been found guilty and sent off to prison.

But why?

In an experimental study, a social psychologist presented two groups of diverse subjects with an identical set of violent lyrics.
The first group was told the lyrics came from a rap song, and the second… from a country song.

What was discovered was the first group — who was told they had rap lyrics — found the words to be more threatening and dangerous… compared to the group who was told they had country.

Even though the lyrics on the page were exactly the same, each group likely had preconceived ideas about both types of music — country is made by good-old southern white boys while rap is made by urban black criminals.

So essentially what happens is… by the prosecution playing with the jury’s preconceived notions about rap music, they also tap into race — which ratchets up public fear and reinforces old and new stereotypes about young men of color as inherently dangerous and threatening.

Which leads me to this —

Are these increases in rap trials just another sign that racism in this country is alive and well? And how many more false convictions and acts of violence — against our own people — will it take before we say… enough?

For me the tipping point will arrive when we admit as a country that we’re still playing out old racial stereotypes. Then — and only then — is when we’ll begin to heal from our collective and historical wounds. We have to remember — and never lose sight of the fact — that our nation and its people are one; indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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