Lyric formulas or criminal musings? Nicholas Stoia examines the music theory behind rap lyrics in the courtroom

Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Stoia and colleagues Kyle Adams and Kevin Drakulich examine the history and context of violent lyrics in popular music.

In 2011, high school rapper Taylor Bell was suspended from school, accused of “threatening two named educators with gun-related violence." Prosecutors presented rap lyrics Bell had written as evidence of his intention to commit a violent crime. Despite support from scholars and many in the hip hop community, the Supreme Court refused to hear Bell's appeal on first-amendment grounds. Taylor Bell isn't the first-- or last-- rapper to find that his lyrics have followed him into the courtroom. Since the 1990s, rap lyrics have been introduced hundreds of times as evidence in criminal cases and continue to be presented as evidence of a defendant's criminal intentions.

Duke music theorist Nicholas Stoia and his colleagues Kyle Adams, Chair of the Department of Music Theory at Indiana University - Bloomington, and Kevin Drakulich, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, weigh in on this practice using their knowledge of the history and context of violent lyrics in popular song. Their article, "Rap Lyrics as Evidence: What Can Music Theory Tell Us?" will be published in the journal Race and Justice.

Q: In your article, you assert it is inappropriate for a prosecutor to present a defendant’s rap lyrics as evidence of criminal or violent intent because doing so fails to take into account the widespread use of lyric formulas in the genre.  What are lyric formulas and how commonly are they found in rap?

Stoia: Lyric formulas are the stock lyrical content of a genre. Singers often deliver their lyrics in the first person, but at the same time they also frequently draw from an extensive stock of lines, fragments of lines, and textual and topical constructions that are traditional and formulaic, and which resonate because they reflect the general circumstances of their audience. Despite their first person delivery, lyrics in many popular genres are often non-autobiographical and unrepresentative of the literal experiences, emotions, or intentions of the singer. As Michael Taft shows, in early blues many of the most common lyric formulas concern movement and anxiety—themes that reflect the social and economic instability of much of the African American population in the years before the Second World War. We found that the same is true of early country music. Furthermore, many post-WWII rhythm and blues and rock and roll songs use the same lyric formulas, but they de-emphasize those formulas expressing the travel motif, which reflects the relative stability of the post-war period. Instead, these later songs emphasize the formulas that relate more directly to anxiety caused by problems in love relationships, rather than to anxiety caused by movement and change. Our study expands this idea of lyric formulas to rap music, where we found that they are also very common.

Q: You identify a number of types of lyric formulas and note that many employ aggressive or violent language.  Why do you think this is the case?

Adams: The easiest, and most often-cited explanation, is that rap comes from “the streets,” but it’s not quite that simple. Rap was born in freestyle competitions and block parties in the 1970s, in which young men would improvise rhymes, always trying to outshine their competitors. One of the most effective ways to do so was to celebrate one’s own greatness and belittle one’s competitors, and one of the best ways to do that was to use images of aggression and violence. As rap moved into the studio, the “battles” became fictional and stylized, but the imagery continued.

Stoia: The music examples in the left column demonstrate how prevalent these battle formulas are across different sub-genres of rap.  The excerpt from Big Daddy Kane's "RAW" is an example of an old-school battle rap.  The excerpt from NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" is an example of gangsta rap, however, both make use of the same stock fomulations:
1. First-person brag (1 PB): I am the greatest.
2. Second-person brag (2 PB): I am greater than you.
3. Third-person brag (3 PB): I am greater than everyone (or some subset thereof).

Drakulich: An additional part of the explanation is the real prevalence and threat of violence in disadvantaged inner-city communities, especially in the 1980s and 1990s as rap was emerging as an art form.  So, some of the violence in rap music is a representation of these real world problems.  At some point the violent content also became a genre convention—one encouraged by record labels.  It's important to remember, however, that violent content is hardly unique to rap music.

Q: Your research shows that lyric formulas— often expressing violent intent— are found in other musical genres, but these are not often presented as evidence in court.  Why are rap lyrics singled out?

Stoia: Some of the most graphically violent lyrics I have ever encountered are in early country music. These include detailed descriptions of slitting women’s throats and throwing the bodies in rivers, and of luring women out into the woods to show them their own freshly dug graves before killing them. And, yes, the descriptions of violence in country music and other genres are often intertwined with lyric formulas, just like they often are in rap music, making any claims that these words represent literal autobiographical content highly dubious, even absurd. But rap lyrics are the only lyrics that prosecutors frequently attempt to employ as evidence.

Drakulich: As to the question of why rap lyrics are singled out, the answer very clearly involves race.  Rap music arose in the context of massive racial socio-economic inequalities and a wildly racially disparate criminal justice system, and it has long been the focus of disproportionate legal attention. Our reactions to rap often reveal our racial biases.  In a famous experiment, Carrie Fried showed people lyrics containing violent and criminal content from an old folk song (the Kingston Trio’s “Bad Man’s Blunder”), but variously told these people that the lyrics were from folk, country, or rap songs. When presented as rap lyrics, people were significantly more likely to find the lyrics objectionable, more likely to express concern about the consequences of the lyrics, and more likely to support greater regulation of the music by the government.  She found the same results using pictures of the supposed artist and representing them as black versus white.

Q: What implication does the admission of rap lyrics as evidence of violent intent have for the First Amendment rights of artists?

Drakulich: As others have pointed out, this usage has a potential chilling effect on First Amendment rights. This is particularly consequential given rap’s historic role in resisting police mistreatment and other racial injustices.

Q: What brought you together to collaborate on this research and what effect do you hope it will have on legal practices?  Do you see any increase or decline in the use of rap lyrics as evidence over the last decade or so?

Stoia: Like most successful academic collaborations, this one began in a bar. Kevin told me about this practice of using rap lyrics as evidence, which struck me as completely insane given what we know about lyrical composition in other genres. I got the idea of bringing in Kyle, an old friend and colleague who has done considerable research into hip-hop, so that the three of us could work together on a project addressing this issue.

Drakulich: I first learned about the growing trend of prosecutors presenting rap lyrics as autobiography rather than art from a presentation by Charis Kubrin (a professor at UC Irvine) at a race and justice conference. I recounted the talk to Nick, who had a strong reaction to how the lyrics were being interpreted. His first critique was rooted in this idea of lyric formulas, and I thought it was an idea that criminologists and legal scholars would be very interested in. Our hope in writing the piece is to influence legal practices surrounding the use of rap lyrics in trials, both in the short-term in specific cases where rap lyrics are being used in simplistic and false fashion, and in the longer-term in changing the rules and guidelines for how lyrics are used and interpreted in legalistic settings.

Adams: I’ve been a fan of hip-hop since childhood—I was one of the legions of 12-year-old suburban white kids whose lives and futures were certainly going to be destroyed by hip-hop music in the late ‘80s, to hear Newsweek magazine tell it—and a hip-hop scholar for about a decade now. I have to admit that I was completely unaware of rap lyrics being used as evidence until Nick and Kevin brought me on to this project, but I was stunned to learn about the practice. Anyone familiar with the genre can see the absurdity of interpreting the lyrics literally, and it was my hope that I’d bring to the project some context for rappers’ use of violent imagery.