In all likelihood, Johnny Cash did not shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But he did make that claim in “Folsom Prison Blues,” a murder ballad that he opened shows with throughout much of his career.
Admittedly, the outlaw-country pioneer did have his share of one-night stands behind bars, facing charges for public drunkenness, reckless driving and smuggling prescription drugs in his guitar case while crossing the border to Mexico. But there is no record of Johnny Cash’s lyrics being used against him in a court of law.
And then there were the Louvin Brothers, a Grand Ole Opry duo who wrote and recorded songs like “The Christian Life,” “There’s a Higher Power,” and the cautionary “Satan Is Real.” One of their lesser-known songs was “Knoxville Girl,” a grotesque murder ballad that makes most others pale by comparison. In it, the narrator goes out walking with his girlfriend on a Sunday evening and, for unknown reasons, beats her with a stick while she pleads for her life, until she can’t plead anymore.
From there, the song becomes even more explicit: “I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around / Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town / Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl with the dark and rolling eyes / Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, you can never be my bride.” Afterward, the song’s narrator goes home with a bloody nose and sleeps poorly.
In real life, Ira Louvin was no stranger to violence, both onstage and off. According to a 1963 story in the “Miami Herald,” his third wife shot him six times after he allegedly tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. There is no record of Ira Louvin’s lyrics being used against him in a court of law.
But times change. Over the past two years, there have been more than 500 criminal cases in which prosecutors have used musicians’ lyrics as evidence against them. The vast majority of the defendants are Black, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by at least two politicians.
In August, Congressmen Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act, which would ban the use of a musician’s “artistic expression” as evidence in a criminal trial.
“It is no longer enough that the Bill of Rights guarantees that freedom,” said Johnson in a July 27 press conference. “Without further Congressional action, the freedom of speech and of artistic expression present in music will continue to be stifled, and that expression will be chilled, until the voices behind that protected speech are silenced.”
The RAP Act initiative follows in the wake of Atlanta rapper Jeffery Lamar Williams, aka Young Thug, being indicted for violation of the RICO act. Prosecutors have cited several of his lyrics and videos as “overt evidence of conspiracy” with a Georgia street gang. Among them is the 2020 track “Slatty,” which includes the lyric “I killed his man in front of his mama / Like flil’ bruh, sister and his cousin.”
Although Kim, Kanye and Trump have yet to weigh in on the matter, the music industry at large is expressing its support for the proposed legislation. The Recording Academy, which awarded Young Thug a 2019 Grammy for co-writing Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” called it “a crucial step forward in the ongoing battle to stop the weaponization of creative expression as a prosecution tactic.”
While the concept of rap lyrics as self-incrimination may be trending these days, the tradition of blaming musicians for inciting their fans to commit acts of violence has not gone away.
The day after the Uvalde elementary school shooting, Texas Congressman Ronny Jackson deftly shifted the blame from assault weapons to gangsta rappers. “Kids are exposed to all kinds of horrible stuff nowadays,” he told Fox News. “I think about the horrible stuff that they hear when they listen to rap music … all of this horrible violence.” (Full disclosure: Jackson also blamed video games.)
It was the same strategy that was used in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, which prompted the mainstream media to fixate on the shooters’ devotion to shock-rock artist Marilyn Manson. Within a week of the massacre, 10 U.S. senators had fired off a letter to Seagram, who owned 50 percent of Manson’s label Interscope, requesting that they stop distributing “music that glorifies violence.”
The FBI sent a similar letter to Priority Records after the release of N.W.A.’s “FTha Police.” But the Detroit Police Department took it a step further. According to retired Sgt. Larry Courts, who was working in the gang squad at the time, he and other officers were tasked with going backstage at the Joe Louis Arena and informing the Compton rap group that they were not allowed to play the song during their set. When N.W.A. disobeyed, the show was shut down.
Shortly thereafter, the British metal band Judas Priest was taken to civil court for supposedly hiding the subliminal message “do it” in their cover of a song written by Gary Wright, who’s best known for his ’70s soft-rock ballad “Dreamweaver.”
According to the plaintiffs, the recording provoked two teenage kids to commit suicide. Some $250,000 in legal fees later, the case was dismissed, as was a similar lawsuit against Ozzy Osbourne for his far more explicit song “Suicide Solution.”
At the moment, it’s drill music, the rap subgenre that originated on the streets of Chicago, that’s taking its turn in the spotlight as music’s public enemy No. 1. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former law enforcement officer, recently called a press conference after his son sent him several “alarming” drill music videos.
“We pulled Trump off Twitter for what he was spewing, yet we are allowing music displaying guns [and] violence to stay on these sites,” said Adams, while vowing to pull together social media companies and tell them that they’re shirking their civic and corporate responsibility. “This is contributing to the violence we are seeing all over this country,” he concluded. “It is one of those rivers that we have to dam.”