Graduating PhD student studies the danger of using rap music in criminal trials

Negative perceptions of rap music and rappers threaten to sway juries in criminal trials.

In cases across the U.S., criminal investigators have been treating rap lyrics as confession evidence rather than as art or entertainment. The aspiring rappers’ lyrics – found on scraps of paper, in online rap videos, on Facebook posts and in other places – become courtroom evidence.

But a major concern is that negative stereotypes about rap music influence how jurors evaluate the lyrics and the people who write them. Jurors are allowed to examine lyrics for intent to commit a crime, but pervasive associations of rap with criminality mean they might consciously or unconsciously also use the lyrics to determine whether a defendant is the type of person who would commit a crime – even though the lyrics aren’t allowed to be used in that way.

Adam Dunbar, who is graduating with a PhD in Criminology, Law and Society, has studied the intricacies of how people perceive rap music – and how those perceptions result in rap music being a potentially discriminatory form of evidence in criminal trials. People bring a certain baggage, which is often racial, to their understanding of rap lyrics and rappers.

“Jurors are allowed to treat the lyrics like confession, as information about whether the defendant has intent or motive of crime,” Dunbar says. “But what they’re not allowed to do is conclude that since this person is writing violent rap lyrics, they’re more likely to be aggressive or commit crimes.”

In September, Dunbar will begin a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Delaware’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, where he aims to continue the rap research.

Dunbar earned his bachelors of science in psychology and sociology at Stanford University. He started his graduate degree at UCI in 2011, and, a couple years in, heard a talk by Professor Charis Kubrin that narrowed his focus on rap lyrics in criminal trials.

In the fall of 2015, Dunbar and Kubrin, who is his advisor, had the chance to use a novel method of raising research dollars: crowd funding. In a green room with a camera and teleprompter, Dunbar videotaped his pitch. Donors – friends, family and strangers – gave enough money to surpass the $6,000 goal.

“I’d never done crowd funding before, so it was a new experience. The effort was well received and it seems like a great avenue for getting more funding,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar’s dissertation includes three studies. In the first study, a replication of a study done in 1996, participants read a set of lyrics. Some were told they were lyrics from a country song; others were told they were rap lyrics. In fact, all participants read lyrics from a 1960s folk song.

Those who were told the lyrics were rap viewed the lyrics as more threatening, more offensive, more in need of regulation and more autobiographical. Additional analyses showed that older participants were susceptible to this “genre effect,” while younger participants were not. However, other traits such as gender, education level or parental status, did not affect whether the “genre effect” occurred.

For the second study, Dunbar added genre comparisons of heavy metal and punk, and asked the participants to evaluate the song writer, including their character, arrest record, crime history and involvement in a gang.

Dunbar found that the songwriter whose lyrics were associated with heavy metal and rap were both viewed as having, respectively, worse character and likelier involvement in crime than the songwriter associated with punk or country, even though the lyrics were all the same. But heavy metal lyrics, Dunbar notes, aren’t used as confession evidence like rap lyrics.

The third study in Dunbar’s dissertation examined if people change how they evaluate lyrics to support what they think is the appropriate verdict in a case. For instance, are people likelier to view lyrics as an admission of guilt when they believe the defendant is guilty?

It turns out they do. “If they have this notion that the defendant is guilty, then they’re more likely to view the lyrics as a confession of guilt,” Dunbar says.

The fact that people are making character inferences about a songwriter based merely on the genre label ascribed to his lyrics highlights the problematic nature of using rap lyrics as evidence at trial, Dunbar says.

“Other forms of art or entertainment get the benefit of the doubt, whereas rap does not,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach, drawing on multiple fields, mirrors the School of Social Ecology’s focus on recombining disciplines in new ways, and breaking down barriers between scientific fields. For aspiring scholars, the School has a large number of professors in a wide array of fields who want to mentor students, Dunbar says.

“I view myself as an interdisciplinary scholar. I draw on psychology and criminology, socio-legal scholarship and sociology. There are so many people who are experts in those fields here who are also willing to work with students,” Dunbar says.