Songwriter's Corner|

Photo: Mac Phipps, Jr. | By Sam Levin, The Guardian | In 2000, McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr was a 22-year-old rising rap star when he was arrested for murder. A 19-year-old had been shot at a Slidell, Louisiana, club where Phipps was due to perform, and police quickly zeroed in on the artist as the suspect. A man who was working security at the venue confessed that he had killed the teenager, but still prosecutors pushed forward with a trial against Phipps.

Authorities had no physical evidence or weapon tying Phipps to the murder, but they had something else to bring to court: Phipps’ rap lyrics.

“‘Murder, murder, kill, kill’; ‘Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head.’ Those are some of the lyrics that this defendant chooses to rap when he performs,” the prosecutor told an all-white jury, according to a recent NPR report.

Phipps was convicted and given a 30-year sentence.

Last week, California lawmakers passed new regulations meant to restrict such use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal court, the first-of-its-kind legislation expected to become law in the US.

Experts say that although the impact of the new policy will be narrow, it is a step forward in putting guardrails on a prosecutorial practice that all too often has worked to criminalize the artistic expression of young Black and Latino men.

As prosecutors in Georgia face growing scrutiny over their use of rap lyrics in recent gang conspiracy cases against Gunna and Young Thug, advocates and artists hope the reforms will help expose the tactic.

“We’ve got a long way to go. There are people still sitting in prison who have been affected by this,” said Phipps, who was released last year after two decades in prison. “It’s an attack on free speech and particularly Black art.”
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The lyrics are typically cited to suggest “gang affiliation”, proof of crimes and intent, or demonstrate a rapper’s “violent” character or threats, and the strategy was used against famous artists like Snoop Dogg in the 1990s, Drakeo the Ruler in 2018 and Tekashi 6ix9ine in 2019.
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Multiple studies have found that associating defendants with rap music creates a strong negative bias in jurors and that people are significantly more likely to perceive lyrics as violent, offensive, threatening, dangerous and literal if they are from rap, compared to other genres.

“As soon as you introduce rap, you’re compromising the defense’s ability to have a fair trial,” Lerner said.
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In the case of Mac Phipps, prosecutors presented the artist’s lyrics as evidence he was a criminal, despite overwhelming evidence that he was innocent.

Witnesses who had testified against him later signed affidavits saying police had coerced them to lie, including by threatening them with arrest. Last year, the Louisiana governor granted Phipps clemency, which did not overturn his conviction but allowed him to come home after 21 years.

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