Rap Lyrics as Evidence: What Can Music Theory Tell Us?

Journal Article (Academic article)

Recent scholarship has shed light on the troubling use of rap lyrics in criminal trials. Prosecutors have interpreted defendants’ rap lyrics as accurate descriptions of past behavior or in some cases as real threats of violence. There are at least two problems with this practice: One concerns the interpretation of art in a legalistic context and the second involves the targeting of rap over other genres and the role of racism therein. The goal of the present work is translational, to demonstrate the relevance of music scholarship on this topic to criminologists and legal experts. We highlight the usage of lyric formulas, stock lyrical topics understood by musicians and their audiences, many of which make sense only in the context of a given genre. The popularity of particular lyric formulas at particular times appears connected to contemporaneous social conditions. In African American music, these formulas have a long history, from blues, through rock and roll, to contemporary rap music. The work illustrates this through textual analyses of lyrics identifying common formulas and connecting them to relevant social factors, in order to demonstrate that fictionalized accounts of violence form the stock-in-trade of rap and should not be interpreted literally.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Stoia, N; Adams, K; Drakulich, K

Published Date

  • January 31, 2017

Published In

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1550-7815