Rap Artist Kemba Discusses Sundance Documentary, “As We Speak Rap Music on Trial

As Young Thug’s trial enters its third week, much of the controversy surrounding his case is the judge’s ruling that his song lyrics can be admitted by prosecutors as evidence in the case on a conditional basis. This has drawn attention to the issue of whether or not the legal system can use an individual’s lyrics and other forms of artistic expression against them in court, the key issue of As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial, a documentary which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and is gaining widespread critical acclaim for bringing awareness to the issue.

The film, which is streaming now on Paramount+, follows Bronx rap artist Kemba as he explores the growing weaponization of rap lyrics in the United States criminal-justice system and abroad.

Kemba sat down with The Source to discuss the documentary and what he hopes to achieve with it including policy changes and why all Americans should care about the issue.

Guided by Alexandra Kazarian, a criminal defense lawyer, Kemba takes viewers on a mock journey through the criminal justice system of someone on trial whose rap lyrics are being used as evidence against them while providing the issue in a larger context of freedom of speech and expression and systemic racism..

Throughout the documentary, Kemba interviews a variety of people including famous artists such as Killer Mike, academic, professional, and legal subject matter experts, and artists about their experiences of having their words twisted against them with the stakes being as high as their loss of freedom.

Kemba starts out the documentary by giving a brief history of how Black music has experienced censorship from the time of slavery, when states outlawed the drum, calling it a “symbol of rebellion.” He described how jazz, rock and roll, and eventually rap, all have faced battles with the American political system.

John Hamasaki, Criminal Defense Attorney, summarizes the key racial component in the documentary, stating that “rap is black at its core, at its root, where it originated from.”

Kemba explains that the challenge is that unlike actors, whose role is often seen as separate from their real life, people often expect more authenticity from musical artists, specifically in the genre of hip-hop. This is why a song that includes elements of things like violence, drugs, and crime may seem more like a first person narrative as opposed to art that is simply reflecting the artist’s observations or experiences of their reality.

Erik Nielsen, co-author of “Rap on Trial,” explains the unique challenge that faces many rap artists when it comes to using their words against them, stating that some prosecutors try to argue that “this artistic expression is some form of confession.”

Kemba emphasizes the idea that the problem is that oftentimes within the legal system (police, prosecutors, the courts, etc.) are not able to make that differentiation and not only will they use words or lyrics (often taken very much out of context) to try to tie the individual to the crime, but they may also use it to make a judgment about their character.

Kemba introduces us to Mac Philipps, a rapper signed to Master P’s label in the 1990s, who served almost two decades in jail after being convicted of murder. In court, the prosecutors cobbled together lines from two of his songs to make a complete sentence “murder murder kill kill [lyrics from a song about a battle rap] f*** with me  and I will put a bullet in your brain [another song describing his father’s experience serving in Vietnam]” that would be used to “demonstrate his character,” eventually leading to his conviction despite no weapon, no witness testimony, and a confession from another individual.

In our interview, Kemba explains how prosecutors often use rap lyrics when their case against the defendant is weak. He points to the character portrayal often used by prosecutors, explaining that a prosecutor may not  even use an artist’s words to try to demonstrate a link to a crime, but “just that they’re a bad person.

While the public is largely aware of high-profile cases in which an artist’s words have been used in court, Kemba points out that the high-profile cases are the very small minority of such cases where a person’s written or spoken art (including social media) has been used against them.

In the film, Kemba introduces us to lesser-known artists who have experienced some form of punishment or censorship due to their art and through interviews, shines a light on the alarming culture of surveillance that has increased drastically in the digital era, explaining that the issue of courts using rapper’s lyrics in court against them should very much matter to average people.

While the high-profile cases may be a magnification of what some might see as a slippery slope into both digital surveillance and censorship, Kemba believes that high profile cases are also distractions, stating that [the high-profile cases] “make people think that’s the only thing that has happened that’s happening when when most of the time is happening to people that are not high profile.”

Kazarian takes Kemba on a mock visit to the courtroom, explaining how most people facing charges cannot afford an expensive defense attorney and are often assigned an overworked public defender who does not have the requisite experience to adequately defend their clients. When looking at the possibility of hard jail time, about 99% of defendants take a plea deal for a lesser charge either due to lack of financial resources or lack of faith in the system, which is still a punishment when their only crime may have been their art. 

As for the future, Kemba hopes that Americans and citizens of democratic countries will see his film as a wakeup call for maintaining freedom of speech and artistic expression and reducing racial discrimination within the criminal justice system and push for policies that support these ideals. He cites the California RAP Act, a bill that aims to restrict the use of rap lyrics as evidence by prosecutors in criminal cases, but says there is a lot of work to be done not just with regard to legislation, but also public perception.

“I want to influence some legislation, but also influence the people,” he tells us, arguing that empathy is another element that he feels is important surrounding the issue.

“I want this to connect with people because of empathy, seeing what’s going on with a community of people, especially in a genre [of music] that I’m sure they enjoy at least a little bit or take or take style or dance from ore participate in some manner,” Kemba tells us, summarizing the importance of the issue succinctly. 

“Maybe you’re on a jury, maybe it’s a friend or family member on trial, maybe it’s you.”

The post Source Exclusive: Rap Artist Kemba Discusses Sundance Documentary, “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial” first appeared on The Source.

The post Source Exclusive: Rap Artist Kemba Discusses Sundance Documentary, “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial” appeared first on The Source.

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