Last week, a New York Post article described a little known, specialized unit of the NYPD that keeps tabs on a number of rappers and hip-hop stars. This shadowy unit is allegedly composed of plainclothes cops whose job it is to investigate crimes and violence in the hip-hop industry. The “Hip-Hop Squad” conducts surveillance at the rap stars’ NYC parties, night club appearances and concerts. However, even untalented and amateur rappers can find their way onto the radar of the hip-hop police because the NYPD is also using online rap videos as evidence of gang activity. In some cases, these videos and their violent lyrics have even been used as evidence against defendants at trial.

Amateur music videos and rap lyrics posted on sites like YouTube and Facebook have been catching the attention of the police. It has been reported that the NYPD, in an effort to cut down on stop and frisk tactics, is now using rap videos in long term investigations into young people associated with gang activity.

In June, after merely one day of deliberations, a federal jury in Brooklyn found a Bloods gang leader from the Gowanus houses guilty of all 21 counts he had been tried for, including three murders, racketeering and drug trafficking. The defendant, Ronald Herron, also known as rapper Ra Diggs, starred in several music videos where he depicted life in the projects and discussed his role as a gang leader.

The admissibility of the gang leader’s violent rap lyrics and videos became a huge pre-trial battle between the prosecution and the defense. The defense argued that the bulk of the videos should have been excluded, as they were irrelevant, inflammatory and violative of the defendant’s right to free speech. The prosecution countered that the lyrics highlighted his real-life criminal conduct and that they qualify as “admissions” and “direct proof of the charged crimes.”

We can assume that Bob Marley did not actually shoot a sheriff and Johnny Cash most likely did not go to Reno and shoot a man just to watch him die but Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis still allowed the jury to see and hear the videos and rap lyrics of Ra Diggs. While it remains to be seen if the evidentiary ruling will be upheld on appeal and also how much weight the jury placed in the lyrics; during deliberations, the jury asked for a copy of the defendant’s rap videos.

Sources: New York Post, “Drake, Chris Brown on NYPD Hip Hop Squad watch list.” August 28, 2014. New York Times, “Rapper Convicted of Murder, Racketeering and Drug Dealing,” June 26, 2014.

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