Music

Rap On Trial: Judge Says Lyrics Can’t Be Used Against Jam Master Jay’s Alleged Murderer

A federal judge says prosecutors cannot cite rap lyrics written by Jam Master Jay’s alleged killer during his murder trial, warning that “music artists should be free to create without fear that their lyrics could be unfairly used against them.”

In a decision issued Tuesday, Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall ruled that the lyrics prosecutors wanted to use against Karl Jordan Jr. – one about shooting a man in the head, another alluding to drugs – were not directly connected to the Run DMC star’s 2002 murder, so they couldn’t be presented to the jury.

The ruling came amid a broader debate over the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials, a controversial practice that has drawn backlash from the music industry and efforts by lawmakers to stop it. A gang trial in Atlanta, in which prosecutors are using Young Thug’s lyrics against him, has drawn particular scrutiny.

In that case, the judge allowed the lyrics to be used, as have most judges confronted with the issue. But on Tuesday, Judge Hall not only barred them from being cited in Jordan’s case, but offered a detailed analysis of the practice and the risks that come with it.

“Courts should be wary of overly permissive rules allowing the use of rap lyrics and videos against criminal defendants at trial,” the judge wrote. “Music artists should be free to create without fear that their lyrics could be unfairly used against them at a trial.”

In a remarkable 14-page opinion, the judge offered a sweeping historical overview of hip hop’s past. She took readers from the genesis of hip hop in the Bronx to the present day, name-dropping Grand Master Flash, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas, Future and Ice Spice along the way.

Because rappers have “played the part of storytellers, providing a lens into their lives and those in their communities,” the judge wrote, their music has often depicted “criminal conduct” and other real-life issues – something that has attracted scrutiny “not only from the public, but also from law enforcement.”

“As a result, the admissibility of rap lyrics has become the subject of dispute in courtrooms across the country,” Judge Hall wrote.

In Jordan’s case, prosecutors wanted to play a lyric in which he rapped “We aim for the head, no body shots, and we stick around just to see the body drop.” Since Jay was shot in the head, the government argued that the lyric “speaks directly to the issues in the case.”

But Judge Hall disagreed. Citing lyrics by Nas (“two in the dome, he’s laid down”) and Ice Cube (“two shots hit him in the face when they blasted”), the judge ruled that lines Jordan wrote “merely contain generic references to violence that can be found in many rap songs.”

She applied the same analysis to another lyric cited by prosecutors, in which Jordan rapped about “breaking down bricks” – an line that the government argued was an allusion to the drug charges he’s also facing. But again, Judge Hall cited other songs in which rappers say the same thing, like Migos’ 2021 track “Modern Day.”

“The members of Migos, however, do not stand accused of drug trafficking in this or any other case,” the judge wrote. “Jordan’s lyrics are simply too imprecise.”

The big problem, the judge wrote, is that rappers not only have a right to tell stories about violence and crime, but are also “increasingly incentivized to create music about drugs and violence to gain commercial success.” She warned that many “will exaggerate or fabricate the contents of their music in pursuit of that success.”

In all cases involving lyrics, Judge Hall said the core question should be whether the music has a “nexus to the criminal conduct” – meaning, a direct, literal connection to alleged crime. If prosecutors can’t show that, then lyrics should be avoided.

“Juries should not be placed in the unenviable position of divining a defendant’s guilt, in whole or in part, from a musical exposition with only a tenuous relationship to the criminal conduct alleged,” the judge wrote.

Judge Hall was careful to say that she was not banning all lyrics from cases. As a hypothetical, she referenced Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 track “The Art of Peer Pressure,” in which he raps about ripping off a house while “The sun is goin’ down” and “somebody in this room.”

“If the government wished to admit these lyrics into evidence at a subsequent trial accusing Lamar of burglarizing an occupied residence with his friends at sunset, there would be a more than sufficient basis to do so,” the judge wrote. “Individuals who choose to confess unmistakable details of their crimes should be held to those statements, to be sure.”

But Judge Hall said that was not the case with Jordan’s lyrics – nor with huge numbers of other rap songs that feature references to dark subjects.

“Themes of violence and criminality have become so prevalent within the genre that they have little, if any, probative value at trial,” the judge wrote. “It is critical that resolution of guilt and innocence emerge from evidence with a close relationship to a specific criminal act, and not be based on perceptions born from the commercial and artistic promotion of a criminal lifestyle.”

The trial over Jam Master Jay’s 2002 killing, in which Jordan and Ronald Washington stand accused of murdering the Run DMC star as payback for a failed drug deal, kicked off Monday. The proceedings are expected to run for several more weeks.

Read the entire decision here:

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