‘As We Speak’: Rap Music on Trial’ Review: Weaponizing Lyrics in Court

by The Technical Blogs


Imagine music that you wrote being held against you in a criminal proceeding. In the documentary “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial,” the Bronx-born rapper Kemba travels around the country and to Britain, interviewing artists and legal experts about how that has been more than a theoretical possibility for rappers.

Mac Phipps, for instance, was convicted of manslaughter and spent more than two decades in prison, even though another man had confessed to the crime. (He was released in 2021.) In an interview with Kemba, he describes how references to violence in his lyrics were used at his trial, despite what he suggests was inadequate context. (One line cited concerned his father, a Vietnam veteran.)

Elsewhere in this documentary, directed by J.M. Harper, the academic Adam Dunbar explains a set of studies he conducted. Participants were asked to judge lyrics from the same song: Some were told they were rap lyrics, others were told they were country and still others were told they were heavy metal. The group that believed the words were rap lyrics labeled the songwriter as having a greater criminal propensity. When the artist manager Chace Infinite argues that rap is taken more literally than other music, the movie cuts to clips of Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury. Would a jury have accorded legal weight to Cash’s claim, in song, to have “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”?

Kemba situates the association of rap with crime in a historical context of censorship of Black music. In another thread, “As We Speak” imagines Kemba himself on trial, with his writing being used against him in a criminal court. The staged material is a bit heavy-handed, but “As We Speak” makes a powerful case for the necessity of being free to make art, and for public awareness that art rarely qualifies as legal evidence.

As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Watch on Paramount+.


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