Arab Rappers Are Landing in Jail for Lyrics—Kind of Like American Rappers

There are plenty of similar examples. Most recently, in May, police arrested 18-year-old high-school student and rapper Cameron D'Ambrosio for posting angry rap lyrics to his Facebook page in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. The lyrics included the line "fuck a boston bombinb [sic] wait til u see the shit I do, I'ma be famous for rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me." Although it was clear to many outside observers, including representatives of the ACLU, that the lyrics were typical rap posturing that didn't amount to a legitimate threat, D'Ambrosio was nevertheless held in jail for over a month without bail. Only after the grand jury decided not to indict him was he released. In response to the case, Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. said if D'Ambrosio's lyrics could get someone locked up, "I'm probably fucked. Lines on my new record are far more explicit than that."

As a matter of fact, if P.O.S. ever runs into legal trouble, he could very well be "fucked," because prosecutors have repeatedly introduced rap lyrics into criminal trials as literal evidence of wrongdoing to persuade juries of a defendant's guilt. A 2004 training manual for prosecutors argues that "through photographs, letters, notes, and even music lyrics, prosecutors can invade and exploit the defendant's true personality." The problem, of course, is that the fictional character projected in a rap song--almost always signaled with a stage name--is often very far from the "true personality" of the artist behind it. The criminal persona found in many lyrics, especially those of the "gangsta" variety, is a genre convention, not a reliable portrait of the performer. Judges and juries don't always understand that, though, an ignorance prosecutors gladly "invade and exploit," giving them an overwhelming advantage in the case--what University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis describes as a "stranglehold."

While high-profile artists like Lil Boosie, Snoop Dogg, and Beanie Sigel managed to escape conviction when their lyrics were used against them in court, lesser-known amateurs have been less fortunate.

Empirical evidence has shown that rap lyrics, particularly those in the "gangsta" style, are highly prejudicial--that they do indeed create a "stranglehold" for prosecutors. While high-profile artists like Lil Boosie, Snoop Dogg, and Beanie Sigel managed to escape conviction when their lyrics were used against them in court, lesser-known amateurs have been less fortunate. In case after case in which rap lyrics are presented to juries, defendants end up in jail, even when the evidence against them is questionable.

In one case I wrote about last year, Louisiana rapper Clyde Smith (stage name "G-Red") was pulled over by police, who subsequently found prescription drugs in his possession, including hydrocodone and Xanax. Despite the fact that Smith had prescriptions for everything, that no pills were missing from any of the containers, and that he had medical conditions justifying their use, he was charged with intent to distribute. At trial, the case against him was weak, but then the prosecutor showed jurors two of his YouTube performances in which he bragged about selling drugs. The jury convicted him, and because he had a prior criminal record, he was sentenced to a stunning 30 years in prison.

When we consider that rappers like Smith, D'Ambrosio, Oduwole, and many others here in America are being sent to jail for their music, the policing of artists in the Middle East and North Africa doesn't seem so distant or foreign. While it's true that Weld El 15, El General, El Haqed, and their counterparts across the region are often targeted for their distinctly political roles in high-profile revolutions, it's worth remembering that American hip hop performers continue to be engaged in a political struggle, too, over their right to practice their art freely. As rappers in the U.S. have known for some time, this freedom comes with caveats, a reality Ice T captured best in the subtitle of his 1989 album The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say!

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Erik Nielson is assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, where his research focuses on African American literature and hip-hop culture. He has written for The GuardianThe Huffington Post, The New Republic, and a number of academic journals.

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