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Are rap lyrics evidence enough to convict someone of a crime?

In 2007, two people were killed and the police were stumped. They had little evidence, no witnesses and not a single suspect. The case had gone cold, and for years it lay dormant. But then in 2011, a rapper from the area by the name of Twain Gotti -- whose real name is Antwain Steward -- released a song with lyrics that were ominous, though vague. The lyrics alluded to the possibility that Twain Gotti killed someone and got away with it.

The question is, did Antwain Steward really kill someone and get away with it? Or did Twain Gotti, Steward's hip-hop alter ego, tell a made-up story about killing someone all to stay true to the genre of rap he represented called "gangsta rap"?

To law enforcement and prosecutors, the former is the right scenario. They arrested and charged Steward with the murders, even though the rap lyrics are all they really have to go on.

Rap lyrics are increasingly more prevalent in criminal cases, and it raises the question of whether they are legitimate forms of evidence. Does a form of artistic expression amount to a confession? Do the songs of an artist actually convey his or her literal thoughts and feelings, or are they more about building a persona or alter ego?

One associate professor highlights this conundrum with an astute observation, especially in relation to the Twain Gotti case. "If you aspire to be a gangsta rapper, by definition your lyrics need to be violent," she said.

Source: New York Times, "Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun," Lorne Manly, March 26, 2014

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