Commentary: Policing Rap Lyrics Is Ridiculous

A court’s reversal of a conviction reminds us that it’s best to prosecute criminals, not people who talk about crimes in writing.

In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo, Olutosin Oduwole walks outside of the Madison County Criminal Justice Center in Edwardsville, Ill., during his trial on charges of attempting to make a terrorist threat. (Photo: AP Photo/Belleville News-Democrat, Derik Holtmann, File)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the government going after rappers is a thing of the past, something that died in the early ‘90s, when Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center went after and tried to censor sex-crazed acts like 2 Live Crew. Unfortunately, you’d also be wrong.

Earlier this month, an Illinois appeals court overturned the conviction of Olutosin Oduwole, a Black student at Southern Illinois University who was arrested in 2007. Oduwole didn’t kill or rob anyone. Rather, after police impounded his car, they found a note inside of it reading, “if this account doesn't reach $50,000 in the next 7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!”

Along with the note, which was referencing the Virginia Tech shooting, Oduwole had a gun in his home, and a gun dealer told authorities Oduwole had been trying to buy other semi-automatic weapons.

Police and prosecutors felt that was all enough to build a case from, and in 2011 Oduwole was convicted of attempting to make a terrorist threat and sentenced to five years in prison.

Oduwole and his lawyers maintained that the threatening letter was actually just a piece of paper with ideas for a rap song on it, so when Oduwole was freed this month, his lawyer was ecstatic.
“We're very pleased the appellate court agreed with our arguments,” he told the Associated Press, “that there's no evidence of a threat being conveyed or communicated.”

Though Oduwole got off, others might not be so lucky in a nation that continues to use rap lyrics as evidence against Black men. In a Huffington Post piece called “Prosecuting Rap Music,” Erik Nielson writes that going after rappers for their music might be more common than you think:

Several well-known rappers — including Snoop Dogg, Beanie Sigel, and Lil Boosie — have had their lyrics used against them in court. Celebrity performers such as these can often escape conviction, but amateurs like Olutosin Oduwole and many others are usually less fortunate. Without the name recognition to remind juries that they are indeed artists, or the financial resources to mount a legitimate defense, they remain vulnerable to a justice system that has become devastatingly efficient at locking up young men of color.

It’s not that rap lyrics aren’t sometimes violent or off-color — any rap fan telling you the truth will tell you that they are. But there is a huge problem when young Black people expressing themselves via music — or anyone expressing himself via any art form — are being antagonized by police for daring to write violent or aggressive lyrics while not actually committing any crimes. I’d always rather have someone make an angry song about robbing me than actually rob me, and I’d rather not live in a world in which they’re prosecuted for merely talking about taking my money.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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