A friend asked me to respond to this comment in the Times on the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials. This is what I said:
My mind turns (having recently read a transcription of Langston Hughes’s testimony) to the many instances in which authors and artists were brought in front of McCarthy era tribunals to address the claims that their artworks contained information about their political allegiances. I think more modern minds find it preposterous that the actions or thoughts of one’s fictional characters are any kind of reliable indicators of the author’s actions or thoughts. They’re art, or fantasy, or imagination, and while all of these things are filtered through the experience and mind of the creator (or, constrained by them, if you like), they’re not the sort of thing that we’d take as evidence of a crime (setting aside for the moment the inanity of viewing Communist party membership as any kind of a crime, under any circumstances).
Yet we see that’s exactly what’s happening in this case.
Why the double-standard? Well, people do sometimes follow the advice: “write what you know.” And much–arguably, a majority–of violent rap music is written by people who have experienced violence. In fact, many of these people live in places absolutely steeped in violence. Suffused with it. A giant vat of sad.
Some of those people have participated in it, no doubt. But what we’re seeing, in the mass policing of black men more generally, and black gangsta rap artists more specifically, is this assumption that because black men are more often seen as criminals (thanks, nightly news!), and gangsta rappers often develop a character that is a criminal, we assume they’re all criminals. And once we’ve made that assumption, we assemble evidence to convince ourselves that our assumption (and our faulty transitive logic) is, in fact, true.
But a protagonist is not the same person as the author. One is fictional, the other not.
What to do, then, when the author performs as the protagonist? I can think of lots of performance artists who “remain in character” even when the cameras are off, and for a variety of good (or, at least, defensible) reasons. Just watch an episode of The Actor’s Studio where someone who is committed to The (Stanislavski) Method talks about how they remain in character in order to be effective in their craft. Pushing further, I can think of many performance actors who perform “in the street”–whose purpose is to trouble our notions of where art should happen. My favorite example, by far, is comedian Andy Kaufman, who often refused to break character because the performance was always happening. [Oh, those wrestling matches with Jerry Lawler still get me.]
Some rappers do this too. They’re “in character” even when they’re not on stage or in the studio. The crass interpretation of this is that they’re trying to sell albums by promoting themselves as a thug. The idea being that thug music made by real thugs is “better” (for some audiences) than thug music made by a nice, sweet boy who loves his mama. I think this makes sense, and I think that’s what the Johnny Cash reference is supposed to illuminate.
I’m certain that a small minority of thug rappers who are not breaking character commit violence. What percentage? I have no idea. But the key question is this: if some of them do it, does a moral society punish all of them?
For me, the answer is obviously not. Some women murder their children, but we don’t arrest every woman that threatens to kill her kid.