Former FBI Unit Chief Discusses Prosecutors Using Rap Lyrics In Court – Forbes

Mark Rossini on a rooftop in New York City.
The YSL RICO case involving mainstream rappers Young Thug and Gunna has steepened into the further legislative argument of whether rap lyrics should be admissible as evidence of criminal intent or action.
300 Entertainment co-founder, Kevin Liles, and Atlantic Records COO, Julie Greenwald distributed a petition against the use of rap lyrics in such a way titled, Rap Music on Trial: A Petition to Protect Black Art.
Part of the letter from Liles and Greenwald reads, “As you may know, currently in Georgia, multiple artists belonging to Young Stoner Life Records – including celebrated artists like Young Thug and Gunna – are facing more than 50 allegations, including RICO charges which claim the record label is a criminal gang. The allegations heavily rely on the artists’ lyrics that prosecutors claim are ‘overt evidence of conspiracy’.”
“Weaponizing creative expression against artists is obviously wrong. But what gets us so upset is what’s happening to Young Thug, Gunna, and YSL is just the most high-profile case. In courtrooms across America, Black creativity and artistry is being criminalized. With increasing and troubling frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions, just like they’re doing in this case.” Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda is a supporter of the petition across artistic grounds.
ALBANY, NY – JUNE 16: The New York State Senate debates legislation in the Senate chamber on June … [+] 16, 2011 in Albany, New York. The Senate is expected to vote on a bill that would legalize gay marriage as soon as tomorrow. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
The petition comes as last month the New York State Senate approved S.7527/A.8681, aka the rap music on trial bill. If Governor Kathy Hochul signs the bill into law prosecutors will have to specifically prove that a lyric and/or song is definitive proof of a crime before going to a jury. In the past rap lyrics have been used prejudicially to show a defendant’s character.
Attorney Joseph Willmore, a renowned family lawyer from Southern California said on the case: “People are often surprised what is and isn’t admissible currently in court. Often during divorces etc, one partner will send the other angry messages or act in a negatively noticeable way, and that can be used in court. They’re often surprised.”
“The amount of times I’ve seen text messages used as a character reference is certainly not small. However, artistic expression should not be used in such a way. It’s an archaic thought process to utilize art as a label of character. What’s more troubling is that it’s rap music specifically that is targeted…not heavy metal, rock, or any other type of music which has – what some would construe – as ‘significant dark language’. Which then brings in prospective racial implications. This could end up being yet another example of there being a massive gap in understanding cultures across socio-economic boundaries.”
For further context and understanding of the situation facing YSL and rap music being perceived as a reflection of crime or character, I spoke with former FBI Unit Chief, Mark Rossini.
Throughout his career, Rossini has handled complex cases in both the criminal and counterterrorism arenas. He has worked on international terrorism matters concerning the FARC, ETA, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda. He served as an FBI representative to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) at CIA Headquarters and he was one of the founding executives of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
He was also responsible for the production of the President’s Terrorist Threat Report (PTTR), and the Threat Matrix, which detailed emerging threats of terrorism.
Releasing a full statement about his thoughts regarding the matter Rossini said:
“Artists throughout history have challenged the observer to think. To open their minds to the known and unknown. To bring the observer out from their 4 walls and step into the world of the artist. Art should not be repressed or oppressed. Artists have sought to tell us about themselves or to show us the world we live in. Their messages have been personal and political.”
“We see Van Gogh laying bare his depression and pain, and also the beauty of the world around him. A study of many great masterpieces by European artists of the Renaissance reveals many subtle and not-so-subtle political jabs. Cartoonists in our newspapers call out the hypocrisy of our politicians. The list goes on.”
“Art is not just sculptures, paintings, and cartoons. It is music, poems, and lyrics. Rap and Hip Hop send us a message of the frustration of our youth. In particular those in the African American and minority communities.”
“We listen and hopefully open our minds to understand and interpret the message. Rap like all art provides an outlet. Which brings us to the trial in Fulton County, Georgia.”
ATLANTA, GA – FEBRUARY 24: Rappers Young Thug and Gunna attend Gunna “Drip or Drown 2” album release … [+] party at Compound on February 24, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage)
“In Fulton County, several rap artists have been arrested and charged in a 58-count RICO case. What has gotten press coverage is that the prosecutors are using the rappers’ lyrics against them in an evidentiary manner. This in turn has caused other artists and music industry executives to sound the proverbial alarm that African American rappers are being labeled criminals for expressing themselves, and the potential for all African American artists to be lumped together and seen by society as nothing more than ‘thugs’ just for being a rap artist.”
“I understand their fears and frustrations, in particular during the polarizing times we are living in. It seems that each day there are news reports of Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups carrying out, or planning to carry out violent acts against minorities. The mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York are Exhibit A of this reality. All that said, the prosecutors in Fulton County have not brought indictments against the arrested individuals for their lyrics. They have been arrested for their violent and criminal acts.”
BUFFALO, NEW YORK – MAY 16: Attorney Benjamin Crump (R) comforts the family of 86-year-old Ruth … [+] Whitfield who was killed during a mass shooting at Tops market on May 16, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. A gunman opened fire at the store on Saturday killing ten people and wounding another three. The attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
“The prosecutors are seeking to show a potential jury that the arrested rappers either used their lyrics to confess to a crime, project a future criminal act, and or send a message to a victim. The objective (and challenge for the prosecutors) is to use the rapper’s own words to show a jury the direct correlation between the lyrics and the criminal act(s). I do not believe that rappers or any other artists have anything to fear by continuing to express themselves and send us, the listener, a message.”
“No one is ‘weaponizing’ black music as several industry executives have claimed. There is a clear distinction between an artist, Black or White, expressing themselves, and a prosecutor being able to show a jury the direct link between an artist’s lyrics and their criminal acts or their overt acts done in furtherance of committing said criminal acts. All this activity can be strung together to determine that an individual or individuals are engaged in a criminal enterprise which is at the heart of a RICO charge. As always, let the jury decide.”
Both Gunna and Young Thug have been denied bond, with the latter being denied twice. The trial date is currently set for January 9th 2023.