Rap Music, Bias, and Criminal Prosecution In the past few weeks, the nation has been gripped by protests against police brutality toward black and brown Americans. The enormous number of demonstrators may be new, but the biases they're protesting are not. In 2017, we looked at research on an alleged form of bias in the justice system. This week, we revisit that story, and explore how public perceptions of rap music may have played a role in the prosecution of a man named Olutosin Oduwole.
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Rap on Trial: How An Aspiring Musician's Words Led To Prison Time

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Rap on Trial: How An Aspiring Musician's Words Led To Prison Time

Rap on Trial: How An Aspiring Musician's Words Led To Prison Time

Rap on Trial: How An Aspiring Musician's Words Led To Prison Time

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/876485823/876495368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Olutosin Oduwole at his home in New Jersey in 2016. Shankar Vedantam /NPR hide caption

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Shankar Vedantam /NPR

Olutosin Oduwole at his home in New Jersey in 2016.

Shankar Vedantam /NPR

Olutosin Oduwole was in his dorm room at Southern Illinois University when police knocked on his door one day in 2007. They were there to arrest him.

"In my mind I'm thinking, 'Okay, maybe a warrant for a ticket.' I really didn't know what was going on," he says.

What was going on was that the police suspected that Olutosin, a college student and aspiring rapper, was on the brink of committing a Virginia Tech-style mass shooting on his campus. He was soon charged with attempting to make a terrorist threat, and was eventually convicted and sent to prison.

Olutosin Oduwole in 2017, at the Revolt music studio in Los Angeles. Yemi Oduwole/Olutosin Oduwole hide caption

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Yemi Oduwole/Olutosin Oduwole

Olutosin Oduwole in 2017, at the Revolt music studio in Los Angeles.

Yemi Oduwole/Olutosin Oduwole

That conviction was later overturned by an appeals court, but to prosecutors, the case remains a clear example of a tragedy averted. To Tosin and his supporters, however, his prosecution was a fool's errand — an example of bias in how people perceive rappers and rap music.

This week on Hidden Brain, we'll meet Tosin and explore his case from all sides. We'll also consider what criminologist Charis Kubrin sees as a troubling rise in prosecutions that use rap lyrics to bolster claims that a defendant is violent.

Additional Reading:

You can find more resources on the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials at the website of our guest Charis Kubrin. It includes a list of legal advisers, testimonies by rappers who have been taken to court over song lyrics, and scholarly research.