Today on the internet, there is an interview with Erik Nielson, a professor of literature and hip-hop at the University of Richmond, on the subject of rap lyrics being used against young men of color in criminal trials across the country. Nielson has written about the phenomenon and has served as an expert witness for defense attorneys hoping to convince juries that their clients are not violent criminals based on lyrics they may or may not have rapped.
Rap Genius (now formally just called Genius) is the most popular lyrics website on the internet. It has become so popular as the go-to source for lyrics that, conservatively, the company has been valued at several hundred millions of dollars. As you may know, if you Google the lyrics to practically any song, Genius is likely to be the top result. That’s doubly true for rap songs, especially new ones.
In the interview, which is maddeningly and condescendingly presented as brief paraphrases sandwiched by nonsensical gifs, Nielson “estimates that rap lyrics have been used in hundreds of court cases—if not thousands.” Yet nowhere in the piece does Genius confront the likelihood that they have facilitated the practice the interview seeks to condemn. The closest the article gets is in the intro, which notes that “this issue revolves around lyrics.”
In 2015, a Brooklyn man named Ronald Herron was sentenced to 12 life sentences for an array of violent crimes. Herron performed as a rapper under the name Ra Diggs, and during his trial the prosecution entered as evidence lyrics rapped by Herron that, they argued, were evidence of his violent nature, if not outright confessions of crimes.
One song played in court was “Live By the Gun,” by the popular Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame, which features a verse by Herron. The Genius page for the song receives a privileged ranking by Google, and if you scroll down to the Ra Diggs verse you’ll see a dissection of his lyrics, including the line, “Nigga shot me five times / Two days later the nigga died.” The attached annotation notes: “In 1998, Ra Diggs got shot by a rival drug dealer in Brooklyn. The shooter was killed two days later by Ra’s cousin.”
Federal prosecutors* made no indication that they ever looked at Genius, but it’s very easy to imagine that scenario happening in the future, if hasn’t already in some other unnoticed case. At the very least, Genius completes a lot of the work a prosecutor might need to do in preparation of introducing rap lyrics as evidence in court. The lyrics are already transcribed, and artists have all their songs grouped under one page for easy navigation. In Herron’s case, jurors were provided with a sheet of lyrics to read as the song played.
Genius’ sprawling and active user base is what has allowed the company to gobble up venture capital money, but that’s also what could make it a uniquely valuable tool for the law. For instance, here is a page in which Genius users have compiled a list of rappers who purportedly belong to gangs. If you click on a rapper’s name, the annotation tells you which gang they’re allegedly part of and, often, which particular set. There’s very little difference between this web page and a dossier that could be created by the police or a prosecuting attorney’s office; indeed, this page might be a prosecutor’s one-stop shop.
All of this—the detailed annotations of violent lyrics and a feature interview about how those lyrics are used in court—could have lived together. In fact, it would have been particularly interesting if had Genius probed its own role, potential or actual, in the matter. Instead, the story is an exemplar of institutional cognitive dissonance.
Genius has moved toward producing original editorial content, but its bread is still buttered by rap lyrics. The most popular hip-hop song in the country right now is “Panda,” by the New York rapper Desiigner. On Genius, the lyrics have accrued 1.6 million pageviews. The page tells us what Desiigner says, but not who, exactly, is looking.
I have reached out to Genius for comment and will update this post if they do.
UPDATE (5:15 p.m.) Here is comment from Insanul Ahmed, who conducted the interview and published the piece:
Our piece acknowledges that rap often mixes autobiography and fiction. But Nielson’s entire argument is that no form of rap lyrics belongs in any court of law. Annotations, like all close-reading of art, are merely speculation—only the artists know the real truth. What courts are doing is presenting these circumstantial connections as fact—a dangerous distinction that we stand with Mr. Nielson in condemning. We encourage readers to click on the highlighted annotations to get the full breakdown from Nielson.
*This post originally identified the Brooklyn DA as the prosecutors in the Herron trial, but the case was federal.