20 Apr

Literal Listening

At the end of last year, someone behind the Twitter account for Louisville, Kentucky all-dude band Quiet Hollers took some time to call out the artist Mitski for a supposedly incorrect lyric in her song “Texas Reznikoff,” in which she calls Texas “a land-locked state.” Included in the tweet were the lyrics, a map of Texas with a hand-drawn arrow to the “oshun” [sic], and a photo of a man looking confused. (They softened the blow slightly by including “(love this song + whole album for real)” in their tweet.)

Mitski quote tweeted the whole thing with an exasperated but measured comment that she’s knows that Texas isn’t really landlocked and that “the meaning of the lyric is between me+who I wrote it for.”

This minor incident is emblematic of a much-larger issue with women and people of color who write songs. There’s a distinct burden on them to leave out artistic interpretation when it comes to lyrics. To some people, their words must be taken literally and should be examined as such in both benign Twitter exchanges to the courtroom.

A more famous example is the explosion of commentary that occurred when Beyonce dropped her incredible visual album Lemonade. Thinkpieces abounded, trying to figure out exactly what Jay-Z had done. Hollywood Life went so far as to pull out 18 instances in the eight songs that prove Jay Z had been unfaithful. Vanity Fair said Beyonce “lyrically accused” him of straying from their marriage, and on and on. That a powerful black woman could make a conceptual piece of art was not on the mind of any person that night; she had to have had direct experience to draw from to work through in song.

Luckily, all of that discussion happened within the court of public opinion. For some people of color, this suspension of disbelief takes place within actual courtrooms, with often life threatening consequences. Killer Mike, the politically active rapper and one-half of Run The Jewels, wrote an op-ed with University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson in USA Today in late 2014 about the injustice of using young black men’s rap lyrics in the courtroom as evidence of conspiracy, gang connections, and other crimes. Nielson confirms this is happening on a widespread level. “It’s only getting worse, not better,” he explained via phone.

There is so much to unpack, but since the days of slavery, artistic expression of Africans, and then African Americans, has always been policed. African Americans are much more likely to have their art taken as biography and words taken as indication of intent. And this trend does not depend on the political party in power. The use of rap lyrics against young black men exploded under the Obama administration. Nielson calls this a flat out “refusal to acknowledge black imagination” and an overzealousness of law enforcement to put black men behind bars.

Nielson explained that young black men often feel the only ways to get ahead in the world are through sports or entertainment. Those who couldn’t make it in the NBA or NFL and might have lyrical and poetic talent often throw their words over beats, collaborate with friends, hustling and hoping for the best. An unknown underdog can make it in today’s musical landscape through the power of the internet and perseverance. However, doors are often slammed in their faces when they start gaining notoriety, as their lyrics are taken literally and used against them. And these are not benign, “disturbing the peace” charges. These are used in capital cases as well. Men are facing death for their art being used as “evidence.”

One of the most famous cases, according to Nielson, is McKinley Phipps, better known as Mac, of Master P’s No Limit Records. A New Orleans native, he was convicted by an all white jury of manslaughter in 2001 of the death of 22-year-old Barron C. Victor Jr. The evidence for the case was an eyewitness, who later recanted after confessing that coercion by threatening investigators swayed her, and his lyrics, misquoted and spliced together from several songs. Even with video evidence of a confession by another person, Mac still sits in prison on a 30-year sentence.

There are hundreds of cases of black rappers being prosecuted with evidence from their lyrics, and Nielson said cases are also being built against aspiring Latino rappers. Nielson personally has worked on about 30 to 40 of them, often traveling to testify in court to the artistic nature of hip-hop. He said there is a stark double standard between the artistic expression allowed to minority artists and white artists, in clear violation of the US Constitution and the First Amendment.

While earlier examples in this article are not as egregious as death row court cases, it all highlights the hypocrisy of those allowed to be entertainers and artists and those who are not. It needs to be examined and chipped away at every turn, so artists can prosper with freedom of expression, safe from literal interpretation of their lyrics.

By Kat Harding, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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