The music of Drakeo the Ruler, whose real name is Darrell Caldwell, details life in South Los Angeles with lyrics that are graphic, violent, and clever. By 2018 he was on his way to becoming part of LA’s rap elite, according to the Los Angeles Times, following in the paths of artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and NWA. But Caldwell was arrested on murder charges. In his trial his lyrics and videos were used as evidence against him. Prosecutors allege the Caldwell was a part of a botched plot to kill a rival at a party he attended in December 2016. Allegedly in the midst of a shootout he and his gang had accidentally murdered 24 year old Davion Gregory. Prosecutors said Caldwell rapped about his crimes. Prosecutors are becoming even bolder in their attempt to use these laws, taking cases to ridiculous extremes, Drakeo’s is one example. Eric Nielsen, a liberal arts professor at the University of Richmond, is the co-author of Rap on Trial, a book chronicling the growing use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings. The jury in Caldwell’s trial rejected the prosecution’s theory. He was convicted on just one count: illegal gun possession. Separate charges of criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a vehicle resulted in a hung jury, so prosecutors opted to retry him on the remaining charges. Allegedly as a member of the gang implicated by the prosecution, Caldwell had benefited from Gregory’s murder, which under California’s Penal Code means he could be sentenced to life in prison. Caldwell is currently in the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail awaiting trial. And we don’t know what’s gonna happen in the trial, we don’t know if the lyrics and the videos might come into play, but they did last time. They did last time, fairly extensively. And I suspect that they will again. I think many people have find it difficult to imagine that these young men are doing something complex, sophisticated, that could be considered literary, artistic. It’s much easier to say oh they’re just rapping about their lives. And that’s precisely why
prosecutors are bringing it in. I think many of them understand that they are misrepresenting rap lyrics they know that they’re doing that they’re doing it
because they want the jury to see this stuff that is yep
salacious it’s profane and therefore you’re compromising somebody’s right to
a fair trial Nielsen says the prosecutors who take rap lyrics
literally don’t understand the art form which first emerged in New York City’s
South Bronx to the 1970s South Bronx a national symbol for urban decay street
gangs really reigned supreme in the South Bronx and there were hundreds of
fighting street gangs across New York City and so what you saw with hip hop
was that it really was at least for some of the early founders of the movement it
really was seen as a productive and creative alternative to gang life it
drew on the territoriality of gang life it drew on that inherent competitiveness
of it but it was a way to take something that was destructive and turned it into
something productive something artistic rappers created fictionalized versions
of themselves influenced by blaxploitation films and the work of
pimp turned author iceberg slim gangster rap didn’t start garnering massive
mainstream appeal until 1991 when billboard changed its methodology for
calculating its famous music rankings instead of calling record store managers
and taking them at their word about what was selling the company started counting
the barcode sales of transactions gangster rap catapulted to the top of
the charts and record companies took notice that still is seen by many as the
formula for success in rap music that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions there
are the Will Smith’s and the MC Hammer’s and whatever else but generally speaking
especially with amateurs they see the sort of gangster rap model were regional
variations of gangsta rap they see that as the pathway to success because they
have many models where that has been true
just wanna come and get a taste they don’t get it till they catch a red
bottom to the face no shit yes it’s hyperbolic it’s over the top and it not
only embraces stereotypes about young black men it doubles down on them it
saturates the criminality intentionally it doubles down on the violence it
doubles down on the hyper sexuality so it’s a form that is very aware of the
stereotypes that many people hold about young black men and it revels in them
and sort of flips them on their head and that’s what’s so interesting about it is
that it’s taken something very negative and turned it into its own art form when
did you start seeing it in criminal proceedings you had these early cases in
the 1990s that sort of laid the foundation for this practice and then
what happened is that prosecutors started targeting these lyrics more
explicitly you had training manuals one of the ones that we cite in the book is
actually from Alan Jackson who was a former prosecutor in Los Angeles that
encourages police and prosecutors to look for lyrical evidence in order to
portray somebody as a thug or a gangster and so word started to spread and
professionally prosecutors are talking to each other the same way that defense
attorneys do and what they saw was that it became successful not only in that it
could secure convictions when he didn’t have much evidence but also that you
were not likely to get overturned on appeal and so it started to solidify
Nielsen says that another turning point came around 2008 with the rise of social
media we see a lot more cases that’s largely because there’s far more
material out there now right if you want to get disseminate your music now you
don’t need a record label you don’t need the radio you don’t need anything you
can go directly using you know YouTube or SoundCloud very low barriers to entry
and so you saw a proliferation of this music out there in videos that have
become increasingly easy to produce right you can make professional-looking
videos with a phone now with the sort of proliferation of these videos and songs
all across the internet you saw also a proliferation of the policing of those
songs Nielsen’s legal testimony and writings
about the misuse of and criminal proceedings have brought
more attention to the issue in March 2019 he partnered with Grammy
award-winning rapper killer Mike in filing an amicus brief with the US
Supreme Court and defensive a Pittsburgh rapper named Jamal Knox sent to prison
for making terroristic threats to police officers in a song
the High Court declined to hear the case but Knox having served his time still
has that terroristic threat conviction on his record which could affect him for
the rest of his life so killer Mike is someone who wrote a foreword for your
book can you read just the highlighted
portion here all right right now aspiring rap artists need to know they
are being targeted by the authorities and they need to balance their right to
free speech and their desire to push the envelope of free speech with the reality
that police are watching Paul Bowles trial is expected to begin in early 2020
and it’s possible prosecutors will use his lyrics and videos again cobbles time
in jail has been difficult he spent time in solitary confinement and at least at
one point thought about giving up music altogether are we in the midst of a
chilling effect on an art form it’s very hard to measure a chilling effect
because a chilling effect is essentially you are creating the conditions where
people are no longer producing things are less likely to produce things so
it’s tough to measure the absence of something but I do see this as
potentially chilling especially as prosecutors become bolder in the ways
and strategies that they’re using to put artists rap artists in jail I do think
that we are reaching a point at which many people are going to have to weigh
their desire to engage in this art form you know to master this art form they’re
gonna have to weigh that with the reality that it could get them in
trouble as these cases continue to grow in number I do think that that is that
is absolutely possible I know I think I sound cold but if you walk up in my
shoulders just a mustache