Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Rap Expert; the Social Mores of Rappers

NYTimes, December 12:
When the police arrested Ronell Wilson in 2003, a day and a half after two undercover detectives were shot in the back of the head, they found scraps of paper in his pocket with handwritten rap lyrics that bragged about a killing.


The scraps of paper were formally introduced as evidence yesterday....


Defense lawyers usually argue that the lyrics are boastful fantasies, common to the point of irrelevance. Mr. Wilson’s lawyers have indicated that they plan to call a scholar named Yasser Arafat Payne, described in court documents as a rap expert, to make a similar argument.


"The rap expert is expected to testify that rap music lyrics often describe violent and sexual acts, and other antisocial behavior, that are not necessarily rooted in actual events," the lawyers wrote. "The expert is also expected to testify that rap music lyrics are often based on imagination and fantasy, rather than on reality. We will update the information as soon as we learn more details."

The rap expert, I surmise, is to testify not only about the content of rap lyrics he has seen or heard, but also about what rap lyrics indicate about the behavior of composers of rap lyrics. One obvious question is the source, or basis, of the putative expert's knowledge about this relationship between lyrics and behavior. A less obvious question is the validity -- normative and epistemic validity -- of the group-to-individual inference on which such evidence about the "meaning" of violent rap lyrics in, say, the community of rappers or in the comminity of composers of rap lyrics. The case may be a nice test of whether group-to-individual inferences are less odious as well as inferentially less fragile when those inferences are mediated by, or based upon, a person's participation in the social mores of a sector of society such as "rappers" or "composers of rap music lyrics." Cf. the debate about group-to-individual inference in United States v. Shonubi. (The Wilson murder trial, it should be noted, is taking place in the Second Circuit, and the appellate opinions in Shonubi are also from the Second Circuit.)
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