UC Irvine Panel Looks at Rap Lyrics on Trial

Some rappers on the radio dial spit lyrics so terrible these days, they should be criminal! But when scholars gather at UC Irvine tonight, they'll be discussing rhymes in a different context. “Rap on Trial” will host a panel speaking on the legal practice of introducing lyrics as evidence in a criminal trial. The speakers on the topic will be Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky (an obvious hip-hop head, right?) as well as UCI professors Charis Kubrin and Sohail Daulatzai.


Kubrin authored an op-ed in the New York Times about a New Jersey trial where a prosecutor read 13 pages of gangsta rap lyrics written by a defendant over the years before the shooting in question.

You may remember a classic Weekly about rapper Joshua Moore, who caught a case in OC for the August 29, 1998 robbery of a Fullerton video store. (See Nick Schou's “Bad Rap, Vol. III”) Known as Big J-Mo, he was wrongfully convicted despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime. The Orange County District Attorney's office substituted rap lyrics he wrote to convince the jury.

“Mr. Moore is a man who likes to make his life reflect reality,” the DA prosecutor said of Big J-Mo at the time of the trial. “He likes rap music because it reflects real life because real life is full of crimes.” That argument was enough to gain a conviction, but not enough to make it stick as Moore was released after two years in prison.

For Daulatzai, author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America, the heavily scrutinized genre has been put on trial in a setting much larger than a courtroom. “I'm interested in discussing how hip-hop in particular, but black music more generally, has been highly surveilled since black people were in this country as slaves,” the scholar tells the Weekly.

“Hip-hop has been policed in a whole host of ways.”

Of course, the co-editor of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic will also be flipping the script during the discussion. “I'm also interested in how hip-hop, in many ways, puts the justice system on trial,” Daulatzai adds. “One of the things I'm going to talk about is N.W.A.'s “Fuck tha Police” and how if you really listen to the song, it's a piece of theater. Dr. Dre is the judge and Ice Cube is the attorney.”

“It's a whole courtroom scene, but the relations of power have been inverted and now you have these black men putting the police on trial.”

Rap on Trial takes place at UC Irvine, Social & Behavioral Sciences Gateway, Room 1517 (see campus map) from 5:30-7 p.m. Free. Open to the public.

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