How rhyme leads to doing time

Charis E. Kurbin gives a lecture on rap in criminal trails in Bozeman, Mont. Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 Photo by Megan Hansen

The criminal justice system is developing a strange new stance towards the interpretation of gangster rap within the legal process. According to Charis Kubrin, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine and an expert in the field of gangster rap music, gangster rap lyrics have become commonly used to provide enough evidence to convict aspiring and established rappers. Kubrin recently gave a free lecture on Tuesday, Sept.12 entitled “Rap on Trial.”


Kubrin began her lecture looking at aspiring rapper Olutosin Oduwole’s, also known as “Tosin’s,” controversial trial. Tosin, who was being charged with “attempting to communicate a terrorist threat,” was on trial primarily because of violent rap lyrics that he had written. During Tosin’s trial, Professor Kubrin functioned as an expert witness. While conducting research supporting her testimony and after analyzing other songs within the gangster rap genre, Kubrin determined that the charges against Tosin could certainly be based on a rap song’s beginning stages. Despite Kubrin’s continual efforts to “provide some context about hip hop, and gangster rap in particular,” the jury ultimately sentenced Tosin to five years in prison for the lyrics that he had written.


According to Kubrin, Tosin is not an isolated case. “There are literally dozens and dozens of other cases that I could share with you today if I had the time,” Kubrin stated. “It’s virtually unheard of outside of rap for our musicians to have their lyrics used as evidence against them.” Because of her research on rap music’s criminalization, Kubrin began asking the question: when does artistic expression stop being artistic expression?


Kubrin ended with a data based presentation on the assumptions that people tend to make when rap music is compared with other music genres. Social psychologist Carrie Fried’s 1999 study “Who’s Afraid of Rap? Differential Reactions to Music Lyrics found that when people were presented with the same set of violent lyrics and were told that the lyrics were either country lyrics or rap lyrics, the test subjects viewed the lyrics as “significantly more dangerous and threatening” when told that they were from a rap song. Based upon this study, and some of her own, Kubrin stated that rap music is often misinterpreted largely because of the negative biases that people hold towards both the rapping art form and towards the people who perform it.


Kubrin has been making it her work to confirm the notion that rap music is an art form and that it is not a truthful recounting of the performer’s actions or an individual’s ideals. Kubrin feels a need to stop the ability that prosecutors currently have to convince judges and juries alike that rapper’s personas also reflect the people who present them. Kubrin believes that artistic expression alone is never enough to convict a person of a crime that they may not have committed.