When Will Courts Admit Rap Videos/Lyrics Posted to Social Media as Evidence?–US v. Wiley
The federal government is prosecuting Wiley for drug dealing. The government seeks to introduce as evidence YouTube videos that Wiley posted showing him “holding unknown sums of cash, sitting in or near various luxury vehicles, and performing rap songs that include lyrics laced with profanities, describing drug distribution, Wiley’s claimed wealth and gambling losses, and other content about Wiley’s life.” The government seeks to treat these videos as evidence of Wiley’s involvement in the drug trade. Wiley objected.
The court rejects a categorical First Amendment defense to the videos’ introduction because the “Government seeks to introduce this evidence as proof of the existence of the alleged criminal conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, Wiley’s membership and association with other members therein, and his familiarity with the drug trade.”
The court then turns to the relevancy of the evidence (FRE 403). The court summarizes the considerations:
rap music as a genre often glorifies violence, misogyny, crime, and other offensive messaging which makes its introduction into evidence potentially highly prejudicial…although rap music often contains first-person accounts of the speaker’s lifestyle and activities—including criminal activities—the lyrics are not always autobiographical statements.
Applying the principles to this case:
the Court will admit only those lyrics that tend to demonstrate Wiley’s knowledge of the drug trade, his involvement and objectives in drug dealing, and his relationship with a coconspirator (Kenton Harry). Lyrics containing statements with only a tenuous connection to the charged conduct (for example, vague statements about Wiley’s youthful origins in drug trafficking, i.e., prior bad acts) are irrelevant, but statements or images with offense-specific content tending to corroborate the Government’s other evidence (such as Wiley’s statements about his use of a “press machine” to facilitate his drug trade and images of him with vehicles that are allegedly proceeds of drug trafficking or belong to a co-conspirator) will be admitted.
More commonly, I see litigation over a social media user quoting someone else’s rap lyrics. Those circumstances create harder cases because the quotations are less likely to be admissions or statements of intent. The quotations may be fancifully aspirational, envious, or even mocking or critical. Often, the victim or government official doesn’t initially realize that they are quotations of third-party lyrics and, as a result, overreacts to them. By the time everyone realizes the quotation, the legal issues should–but don’t always–self-resolve.
I don’t personally understand why people think it’s cool to favorably quote violent or misogynist/hateful rap lyrics, but I’m not part of the relevant community, either. The court is right to proceed carefully with the diversity angles here. This is a great example of how a facially neutral rule (e.g., rap lyrics are categorically probative) would have significant disparate impacts.
Even when the videos/lyrics are the defendant’s own first-party statements, that doesn’t mean they are admissions. It’s not uncommon for performers to adopt public personas that are intentionally different from who they really are. (Recall how Hulk Hogan won a $100M judgment because of a similar dissociation?). And song lyricists of all genres routinely weave together autobiographical details with fictional or exaggerated claims.
Overall, I think the court’s standard makes sense, though its application was a little confusing to me. For example, the court admits the rap lyric “Fuck around in the casinos lost a half a mil.” Is this an admission, an embellishment of a gambling loss of a smaller magnitude, or completely fictional? I guess the point is that the litigants can resolve its veracity through adversarial adjudication, though I remain uncertain about the possible prejudicial effects.
If a law professor was advising rap lyricists how to reduce their risk, we would tell them to assume that every line will be treated as an admission in court. This is one of many reasons you don’t see many law professors who have become successful rap lyricists.
For a deeper dive on this topic, see this UCI site.
Case citation: U.S. v. Wiley, 2022 WL 2656788 (D. Conn. July 8, 2022)