Lives staged for death

All across America a complex interaction between criminal justice and rap artists is unfolding. In many ways we’ve been here before. The 1989 arrest of 2 Live Crew band members in Hollywood, Fla., over accusations of public obscenity is perhaps the leading example. Decades later, the content of rap songs is finding a new place in legal proceedings: as confessions to crimes.

Within the last decade prosecutors in a number of criminal cases have used videos and lyrics created by rappers as evidence of the performers’ guilt. One case that has gained national attention concerns the 2007 murders of Christopher Horton, 16, and Brian Dean, 20, of Newport News, Va. Detectives were largely at the end of their rope. The case was growing cold and there were no suspects and no murder weapon.

In 2011, the case was reassigned to a new investigator. Fresh eyes turned up a YouTube video of Antwain Steward, a local rapper with the stage name Twain Gotti, performing his song “Ride Out.”

“But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him,” Mr. Steward sang on the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.”

Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the detailed lyrics to be a boastful claim of responsibility and, based largely on the song, charged him last July with the crimes.

Steward’s case is one of more than 30 prosecutions in the past two years in which rap lyrics have played prominent roles. According to the New York Times, the proliferation of cases has alarmed many scholars and defense lawyers, who say that independent of a defendant’s guilt or innocence, the lyrics are being unfairly used to prejudice judges and juries who have little understanding that, for all their glorification of violence, gangsta rappers are often people who have assumed over-the-top and fictional personas.

Therein lies the peril of glorifying things that should likely receive condemnation. Regardless of one’s upbringing and cultural milieu, these performers must know — at least on some subconscious level — that braggadocio, posturing and public exhibition of a crime’s gritty details might get noticed. One doesn’t post videos online because one hopes to remain anonymous.

Furthermore, the line between fictional persona and real-world villainy is often breached by those whose zeal for “street cred” oversteps common sense. If one acts like a gangster and goes to great lengths to promote an image of oneself as a violent thug, how then is it wrong to ascribe some truth to the persona? This is especially the case where the individuals in question have criminal histories that accord well with established trajectories toward violent crime.

In short, you can’t have it both ways. Even so, civil rights activists and some academics argue that rappers are getting a bad shake where other musical genres get a pass.

While nobody thinks Johnny Cash actually “killed a man in Reno” Cash’s off-stage antics (vis-à-vis drug and alcohol abuse) created a similar blended persona. Then again, addictions aside, Cash didn’t continually reassert the kind of image that suggested he might have actually pulled the trigger.

In Shakespeare’s, As You Like It, there’s a poem that’s begins with the well-known line, “All the world’s a stage …” It goes on to describe the seven stages of life. As a man matures, he enters what the Bard describes as “Then a soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.”

That’s exactly the peril so many of these young rappers inhabit. It’s not a new situation by any means, but their maniacal drive to kill and die in its service has taken the violence to a new terrible extreme.