Do music lyrics constitute actual threats or confessions? One of the biggest cases involving this emerging legal issue was decided this week when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Vonte Skinner’s songs could not be used as evidence against him. This might seem like simple common sense. That it is instead an ongoing battle in the courts tells us a great deal about how and why we read certain genres of music the way we do.
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the court’s decision. “The Court reasons that defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment.”
But Vonte Skinner and Johnny Cash, Bob Marley or Edgar Allan Poe are treated as if they are different not because of the intentions of the artists, but of the listeners. Gangsta rappers, outlaw country singers and horror writers may operate under conventions particular to their genres, but they all aim to scare us a little, to make real the possibilities of violence and corruption.
Nobody has an interest in seeing Johnny Cash as an actual outlaw. Because he is a white man, his rebellious assertions of masculinity against convention and the law must be made decent and heroic rather than deviant and threatening. Because we want to believe in Cash’s great love for and collaborations with his second wife, June Carter Cash, we grant him the courtesy of believing in the power of his imagination. It is a sophisticated and upright man who can dream of deviance without committing it himself.
Something different is at work in our assessments of Bob Marley. As the religion and culture professor Brent Hagerman wrote in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, “It has become increasingly fashionable among scholars, popular writers, and fans to represent Bob Marley as a peacenik with a streamlined message of peace, love, and unity for the world.”
This excision of parts of Marley’s catalogue and political thought is a way to simultaneously make Marley a broader figure but also a blander one, divorced from his specific role in Jamaican politics. You can take the pot and leave out the pan-Africanism and post-colonialism if you so choose. But that is your order of preferences, not necessarily the one reflected in Marley’s music.
The incentives are very different when rappers or aspiring rappers go on trial.
There, violent rap lyrics are not proof of rappers’ imaginative gifts, their abilities to venture back and forth between fantasy and reality. Granting them the same capacities that we ascribe to Johnny Cash would require prosecutors to acknowledge rappers’ intelligence and sensitivity, not exactly a strategic move in trial. And it would make it harder for the state to suggest that the tropes of gangsta rap are actually references to specific crimes.
And by suggesting that the music itself is a form of violence, prosecutors can convince juries that they are holding an important line by voting to convict. As LaVecchia noted in the decision, “During closing arguments, the prosecutor compared the ‘street code’ to a ‘subculture of violence,’ and intimated that ‘this sub-culture of violence . . . at some point is going [to] overtake the regular culture.’ ”
This same logic shows up in Michael Dunn’s defense for why he shot teenager Jordan Davis. Dunn suggested that he associated the loud rap music Davis and his friends were playing in their car with a certain degree of criminality. Looking for threats where there were none, Dunn claims he saw a gun in the car and shot Davis in response.
LaVecchia noted in the decision that gangsta rap is “a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture.” But there is also something distasteful and mean-spirited about turning art you do not like into proof that the people who make it are deviants and criminals.