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Taking the rap for murder

A young rapper was convicted of murdering a local hero. His lyrics and video were included as evidence. Is that fair?

Updated: October 1, 2021

This hypothetical case study was developed in partnership with the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Before/during class (15 minutes)

*Please note that the optional music-video viewing assignment contains racial slurs and profanity. Please watch the video yourself before assigning to your students and decide if it is appropriate for their consumption privately.

Class time needed

30 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Define the pertinent First Amendment issues in this case study
  • Illustrate the circumstances under which artistic expression deserves protection
  • Identify ways in which race plays a role in evidence introduction

Issue overview

In December 2015, a 15-year-old high schooler in Knoxville, Tennessee, was shot and killed when he shielded female friends from gunfire. Zaevion Dobson’s compelling act of courage was subsequently honored by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, and Dobson was posthumously honored by ESPN with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Three men were tried in connection with his slaying. One, Christopher Bassett, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 35 years on a related charge. Two co-defendants got more than 100 years behind bars each.

The ACLU wrote: “Rap music, in trial after trial, has been treated as inherently incriminating. … At trial, the state showed the jury a rap video featuring Bassett as evidence against him, despite the fact that the videos were recorded months before the murder and make no mention of the victim. Prosecutors argued that Bassett’s sometimes violent and graphic imagery was a confession in song.”

This is not the only case your students may be familiar with. In Florida, rapper YNW Melly was arrested after the 2018 shooting deaths of two of his friends — authorities citing his song “Murder on My Mind” (warning: video includes graphic imagery and profanity) in their case against him, despite its having been released 18 months before the slayings. And in Maryland, a top court ruled that rap lyrics can be used as evidence in court to prove defendants guilty.

As veteran music-industry attorney Dina LaPolt wrote recently in her Variety column, “Rap Lyrics Now Admissible as Court Evidence: A Dangerous Precedent,” “I would invite anyone suggesting that this ruling is not limited to rap music to find an example of a court admitting lyrical evidence of a country singer driving drunk or shooting a cheating spouse.”

On the other hand, courts frequently allow past statements to come into court as evidence. Should that change because the statement has a beat?

The ACLU wrote, in describing its decision to file an amicus brief for Bassett, “Tennessee’s use of ‘Double O’ lyrics as evidence at trial is not only an illegal violation of constitutional free speech and free association rights, but would discourage artistic expression in the future. … If this precedent is allowed to stand, no one who has ever spit a rhyme is safe.”

Discussion questions

  1. What do you think of the prosecution’s decision to show the video to jurors?
  2. Do you think the judge should have kept the song out of the courtroom on First Amendment grounds?
  3. What are the future implications for artists who want to express their experiences through music, even if it includes violence?
  4. Think about some of your favorite artists and songs. Do you consider their lyrics  to be autobiographical and factual, or do you assume that their creators are taking liberties with their life experiences, or both?