Are violent rap lyrics a sign of a violent life?

Posted: February 21, 2014

THERE HAVE been plenty of murder confessions in music - men shot in Reno just for kicks, a sheriff shot down supposedly in self-defense, and one jealous guy named Joe who spilled his guts to Jimi Hendrix before taking off for Mexico.

Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" also includes a murder confession, but the two questions posed in the opening lyrics to the song, "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" could also apply to the 13 pages of violent rap lyrics Vonte L. Skinner wrote before he was accused and later convicted of shooting and paralyzing a man in South Jersey.

"Until the day I die, I will claim my innocence," Skinner, according to an article in the Courier Post, told a Burlington County Superior Court judge when he was sentenced to 30 years in 2008.

A state appellate court overturned Skinner's attempted-murder conviction in 2012, paving the way for a new trial. Next month, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear arguments and later decide whether it was appropriate to have introduced Skinner's violent, profanity-laced rhymes - most written months and years before the 2005 shooting - as evidence at his trial.

The outcome of the March 3 state Supreme Court hearing could set a standard for rap lyrics being used as evidence in future trials.

"There's a growing American opinion that what people rap about, what they sing about, is about real life," said Monica R. Miller, an assistant professor of religion and Africana studies at Lehigh University. "That's very, very dangerous."

Art imitating life?

The American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey is asking the court to adopt stricter guidelines about admitting a criminal defendant's "fictional, artistic expressions" as evidence.

"The appellate division specifically found there was no evidence the defendant did any of the acts he wrote about in his lyrics," said Ezra Rosenberg, an ACLU lawyer.

Skinner's case has garnered international attention, thanks to an opinion piece written in the New York Times by two academics, and critics of the prosecution have argued that the case has touched upon race, the First Amendment, and the fundamental nature of art - whether the subject is always a true reflection of the artist.

The ACLU, according to Rosenberg, found that in 18 cases across the country in which courts considered rap music as evidence, the lyrics were admitted as evidence approximately 80 percent of the time. In Louisiana, the lyrics of Torrence "Lil Boosie" Hatch, specifically his song "187," were used as evidence in his murder trial, and in Pinellas County, Fla., a man who rapped murder-related lyrics over a jailhouse phone could have the words used against him in court, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Lyrical violence

Local hip-hop artist Schoolly D said violent rap lyrics might not mean the artist is living that lifestyle, but they don't help with public perception.

"If it's real, if you capped somebody for real, you'd be smart enough to keep your mouth shut," he said. "Too many artists are worried about keeping it real, but they've taken the fun out of it. There's no art to it."

Miller said the so-called authenticity of hip-hop has made it an easy target, unlike most other genres.

"We don't think about art in museums that way," she said.

The real-life drama that led to Skinner's incarceration occurred Nov. 8, 2005, when the victim, Lamont Peterson, was shot several times outside a home in Willingboro, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Authorities learned that Skinner, an enforcer in a small drug ring Peterson was associated with, was at the scene. No gun was ever recovered, and Peterson, according to the appellate court's decision, changed his story multiple times.

The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on the upcoming Supreme Court decision, and Peterson could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Skinner has been released from state prison and is now being held at the Camden County jail as he awaits a new trial. He is urging friends on Facebook to raise enough money to bail him out. He could not be reached for comment, and his family did not respond to interview requests.

The bulk of the evidence against Skinner, the appellate court said, was the lyrics found in a notebook in the back seat of his girlfriend's car. Skinner wrote the lyrics under the name "Threat," and they detailed rapes, murders and stabbings. Reading them in court amounted to an "appalling assault on common sensibilities," the appellate court argued.

"Yo, look in my eyes. You can see death comin' quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I'm gunnin' with," Skinner wrote. "I play no games when it comes to this war s---. If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits."

With no physical evidence linking Skinner to the shooting besides his cellphone, the appellate court said there was "significant doubt about whether the jurors would have found defendant guilty."

ACLU members said they hope in future cases, rap lyrics can be seen as the art they almost always are, and not a diary.

"Courts need to keep the First Amendment in mind when considering rap lyrics as evidence," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the ACLU in New Jersey. "There needs to be more of a link to the crime and the rap lyrics demonstrating that they're not a work of fiction."


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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