How much should rappers worry about Eric Adams’ war on drill?
Jack Lerner, co-author of Rap On Trial: A Legal Guide For Attorneys, breaks down the significance of the New York mayor’s recent statements.
By Raphael Helfand
February 16, 2022
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.
In an off-topic Q&A following a Friday press conference on pay raises for essential gig workers, a reporter asked New York City Mayor Eric Adams for his thoughts on the relationship between the city’s violent crime rate and drill music. The rap subgenre’s violent lyrics and street-focused aesthetic make it an easy target for politicians, and Adams’ response has prompted concern from some in the hip-hop and legal communities who feel it reflects a long tradition of criminalizing rap.
“I had no idea what drill rapping was, but I called my son, and he sent me some videos, and it is alarming,” Mayor Adams said. “We are going to pull together the social media companies and sit down with them and state that you have a civic and corporate responsibility… We pulled Trump off Twitter because of what he was spewing, yet we’re allowing music displaying guns, violence… to stay on these sites, because look at the victims… We are alarmed by the use of social media to really overproliferate this violence in our communities… This is contributing to the violence that we’re seeing all over this country. It is one of those rivers that we have to dam.”
The mayor’s comments came after two teenage New York drill rappers — Tahjay Dobson (TDott Woo) and Jayquan McKenley (Chii Wvtts) — were murdered in Brooklyn the previous week. Both had histories of repping local gangs and name-checking recently deceased members of opposing crews in their songs and videos. In response to the violence, Hot 97’s DJ Drewski, a major promoter of drill, vowed to stop playing diss tracks on his show.
Adams delivered an emotional speech on Thursday calling McKenley the victim of a “broken system” who suffered from “severe cognitive disabilities” (which, according to McKenley’s father, is not entirely accurate). But he quickly pivoted to discussing drill. “He was a drill rapper, part of a scene which involves using music as a challenge for social media posts,” Adams said, “posts that bled out into violent real-world confrontations.”
Speaking to Fox 5 News, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzales echoed the mayor’s sentiment but added an important caveat. “These drill rap videos are causing young people to lose their lives,” he said. “It’s not that the music is the cause of the violence, but it’s fueling the desire to retaliate.”
At the Friday press conference, Adams acknowledged that many drill rappers “are coming from communities where they believe [drill] is the only pathway for their success.” He also addressed the need for a community-based solution, announcing he’d be forming a coalition with “some of the top known rappers…who see what this drill music is doing.” He’s already met with Shyne and Fat Joe — the latter of whom, at least, is not fully aligned with Adams’ thinking on the matter.
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Mayor Adams recently partnered with a “Grants For Guns” program that offered incentives such as cash, iPads and jobs training for those willing to turn over their firearms to the state. But he’s been much more vocal about the punitive measures he intends to put in place during his first term in office: He’s pushed for rollbacks of significant bail reforms and of the Raise the Age law, a 2017 act that excludes 16- and 17-year-olds from being prosecuted as adults in criminal court. And he’s announced plans for an anti-gun police unit that critics worry will bring back some of the discriminatory practices plainclothes NYPD officers used during the stop-and-frisk era.
These proposals have created a rift between Adams and the more progressive wing of the New York State Democratic Party. In Albany, State Senators Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) are pushing a law dubbed the Rap Music On Trial bill, which would set a higher bar for prosecutors to prove the relevance of hip-hop lyrics and videos to criminal cases before introducing them in court.
This week, The FADER spoke with Jack Lerner, a clinical professor of law at the University of California Irvine and the co-author of Rap On Trial: A Legal Guide with fellow professor Charis Kubrin and students from UC Irvine’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic. He gave The FADER his legal take on Adams’ recent statements, placing them in historical context while assessing their broader implications.
The FADER: What’s your initial reaction to Eric Adams’ recent statements on drill?
Jack Lerner: To me, this is just one incident in a long line of policy makers, the media, and law enforcement scapegoating the artistic expression of young Black men to stoke fear and redirect attention away from the bigger problem. Drill music, like many other forms of rap and many forms of other art, reflects society around it. It does not mean a rapper is literally describing his life. It’s artistic expression, not a diary. Every kind of art is drawn from life. If you look at country music, it’s full of violent images, stories of murder and betrayal. Just as in country music or any other form of music, rappers take on public identities and personas, but that doesn’t mean that’s who they are. Fundamentally, rap music — whether it’s drill or any other form — is not driving crime. It’s reflecting the reality around the communities where it’s made. When you target the music and act like that is the cause rather than a reflection, you’re not getting at the underlying problems. And you’re certainly not getting at the very serious problems with policing and the criminal justice system.
Mayor Adams has said he hopes to get social media platforms to censor drill rappers by taking down inflammatory videos. If he’s successful, would that be a First Amendment violation?
I don’t think it’s realistic that he could compel platforms to remove rappers. Not only would it be a First Amendment violation, section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 [which shields websites from liability for third-party content] would prevent that. Could he use the bully pulpit to try to get platforms to take this music down? I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s absurd to put any type of rap music that’s not a direct and explicit threat, which is exceedingly rare, in the same category as the kind of harmful conduct that is causing people to question section 230 [e.g. child pornograpy, COVID misinformation].
Anyone who’s been sentient for the last 30 years knows that rap music occasionally contains descriptions of criminal activity, or violent and explicit content. But Eric Adams and others should also know that doesn’t mean every rapper is doing all the things he talks about — I don’t think Special ED, when he recorded the song “I Got It Made,” actually owned an island in the Pacific — and that rap music has been misinterpreted, twisted and misused to put young men of color away for over two decades now. It’s irresponsible and harmful to now characterize drill as causing criminal activity or as criminal activity in and of itself. In most cases, you can’t draw a line from the rap to the criminal activity. And if you do, it’s reflecting, not driving, that activity.
Adams has also pledged to meet with high-profile, non-drill rappers to discuss drill’s alleged contribution to violent crime in New York, implicitly signaling that drill is a more dangerous artform than hip-hop at large. Legally, do you think these distinctions can be made with any real nuance?
It’s true that sometimes crews might issue raps that mention specific individuals or other crews. But you can’t take a whole genre of music and assume that’s all that’s going on there. If somebody’s making an actual threat — that they intend to be a threat and that others perceive as a threat — the law already has an answer for that. But giving a shoutout to your crew is not the same as actually making a threat.
To be fair, I don’t think he’s suggesting that rappers shouting out their crews should be censored. I think he’s taking issue with lyrics and videos he sees as encouraging further violence or provoking retaliation. Although he hasn’t actually specified his criteria for removal.
Again, if it’s actually a threat, the law already has a remedy for that. But if it’s not, then you have to let people talk about what’s going on. On occasion, people are describing factual events with a lot of specificity or making clear threats. That’s different from something that’s merely inflammatory; inflammatory is going to happen here, there, and everywhere. You don’t tar and try to cancel an entire genre of music for that reason.
Adams is making these statements at a time when he’s also touting new tough-on-crime legislation. Could all this combined set the stage for harsher prosecution of rappers based on their lyrics?
Absolutely. This demonization of rap is a tool that’s been in the playbook of law enforcement for a long time. It’s used to drive harsher prosecutions and more discriminatory practices that take rap music and use some of its more explicit content to introduce bias into judicial proceedings, and ultimately take shortcuts [in building a case]. Rap music has been used countless times to impugn the defendant’s character but less commonly as actual evidence of a crime. Some courts are starting to push back and that’s what our Rap On Trial Legal Guide is about: helping defense lawyers understand how to fight back.
When you’re talking about a rapper or a group of rappers who might have some inflammatory lyrics or videos, every moment you spend talking about that is a moment you don’t have to talk about Rikers Island and the conditions there, or the harm that incarceration causes to families. If you’re in court, every minute you spend talking about what the rapper said in his raps is a minute you don’t have to spend actually proving your case and actually talking about the elements of the crime. And there’s now a large body of social science research showing that once you start talking about rap, you end up introducing bias into the proceedings and making it very difficult for the defendant to get a fair trial.
The FADER has reached out to the mayor’s office for further comment.