Just a week and a half after being arrested and jailed for attempted murder and criminal possession of a firearm, Brooklyn rapper Troy Ave released a mixtape entitled Free Troy Ave that includes several interludes culled from jailhouse calls to the outside. The intro, intermission, and outro contain several comments about the events leading to his arrest, including: “Pussy nigga tried to assassinate me, I took the gun, and turned the tables ’round like a G—R.I.P. my nigga, B-A-N-G.” He also professes his innocence repeatedly and claims that the case is a “minor setback for a major comeback.”
In the United States, there’s precedent for using rap lyrics at trial. In 2012, a Louisiana court ruled that Boosie Badazz’s use of certain language in “187,” which was recorded just hours before the victim was shot and killed, could be introduced into evidence in his murder trial. In New York, rap lyrics are regularly entered into evidence. Just a few months ago, a judge revoked aspiring rapper Sean Chung’s bail, remanding him to Rikers, after he posted a rap video on YouTube that contained a threat against District Attorney Richard Brown. Outside of the courtroom, a New York Times article in 2014 stated that the NYPD routinely monitors rap lyrics online to study the “pecking order on the streets and grudges between gangs that might have spurred crimes.”
Critics of this practice argue that the songs are artistic expression and that they should be protected speech under the First Amendment, but prosecutors argue that videos and lyrics can be useful evidence in proving their case. In a landmark ruling in 2014, New Jersey’s highest court considered a case where notebooks of violent rap lyrics written by Vonte Skinner, an aspiring rapper, were found in the car he was driving at the time of his arrest. The notebooks were initially used as evidence to convict him of attempted murder, but a higher court threw out the ruling and called for a new trial without inclusion of the notebooks. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed this judgment and noted that lyrics should not be used in court, unless there is a proven “strong nexus between the specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the underlying offense.”
IT WOULD PROBABLY BE IN TROY AVE’S BEST INTEREST TO STAY QUIET UNTIL TRIAL.
If a New Jersey-like standard were to be applied in Troy Ave’s case, it seems likely the lyrics would be considered to have the requisite “strong nexus” to the crime in question; he is commenting on the events that landed him in jail. The actual usefulness of the evidence is, however, questionable. The verse claiming that he “[took] the gun” is probably already indisputable since there is video evidence of him shooting a gun and physical evidence that one of three guns found in the car he took to the hospital was matched to the bullet used to kill his bodyguard Ronald “BSBBanga” McPhatter. Nonetheless, the interlude clearly outlines his defense and it could be used as evidence if he makes claims to the contrary.
It seems unlikely that this case could be one to test New York’s broad policy regarding the use of rap lyrics as evidence at trial. However, regardless of the actual value that his comments have, any lawyer will advise their client not to speak about a pending case, and it would probably be in Troy Ave’s best interest to stay quiet until trial.