Opponents of today’s street rappers—overwhelmed White mothers, rap “purists,” uppity Black folk, and other memorable American characters—might tell you all those bars about time spent in and out of court reinforce negative stereotypes that keep Black men down. Fans of today’s street rappers might tell you triumph stories about jail or felony trials make an artist real. I will tell you any rapper that did dirt (almost always out of necessity), got got by the system, then made it out is a walking miracle. To their communities, they may as well be superheroes. There’s something special about “beat the case” bars.
I went to trial back-to-back, bitch I’m 2 and oh
We was fightin’ fed cases, ‘member I was 2 and oh
Then 12 tried to get me, for gang activity/The judge dropped the charge, and i thank Lord (Thank You!)/That’s why I take this mic and I go hard
90 percent of federal defendants in the United States plead guilty. Trials are a rare occurrence since most defendants don’t have the money or power (e.g. defendants in some states aren’t allowed knowledge of the evidence against them until they go to trial) to make trial worth it. In a 7-year study of over 30,000 cases in Wisconsin, Carlos Berdejó of Loyola Law School found the following:
- Black defendants were 25 percent less likely than White defendants to have their most serious charges dropped or reduced
- Between White and Black defendants with no prior convictions, Black defendants were 25 percent less likely to get charges dropped/reduced
- Facing misdemeanors or low-level felonies, Black defendants were 75 percent less likely to have charges with potential prison time dropped, dismissed, or reduced
The number of studies coming to similar conclusions is growing. Here’s a start.
If you’re reading this, we’re probably on the same page already. If not, here it is simply: the U.S. justice system is great at getting convictions, especially when it comes to Black people.
I could talk about the rappers who beat the case after the fame. Snoop, Gucci, and Boosie quickly come to mind. But to hear someone new in the game start with that kind of story—to know that a swole, cigar-smoking 10-foot-5 Uncle Sam was rolling loaded dice to decide the fate of a few no-name Black teen/young-20-somes—and they still ended up in your headphones on the brink of stardom…
Those are the kinds of odds comic book heroes beat in their origin stories.
While Roddy Ricch’s rap sheet isn’t public knowledge, what we do know about him based on interviews (served jail time as a teen) suggests he really did duck fed cases at an age most of us were complaining about high school classes. Tee Grizzley’s legal ups and downs are well-documented, and the bravado he presents himself with in his music, especially in “First Day Out,” makes his story that much more gripping. Then there’s Quavo—with years of bars about him robbin’ as a teenager (here and here to start)—using his verse on “Birds” to give us a rare vulnerable moment behind all that drip, reflecting on how lucky he is to have walked out of court a free man.
I love these three songs because these are unique, glowing stories told by people who easily could have been another name and a mugshot on your local evening news broadcast one night. The Universe gave these young Black boys a shot and they became millionaires with voices that really say something. Roddy Ricch is just getting started, Tee Grizzley looks to be sticking around, and say what you want about Quavo since Migos went global, but that man was a poet during the group’s rise (see “Cook It Up” 2nd verse, “Antidope” 1st verse).
If you’re arrested and charged in America, you’re almost guaranteed to leave with something on your record. If you’re arrested, charged, and Black, you’re almost guaranteed to sit in a cell. To avoid a lengthy sentence when the book is thrown at you as a young Black man is one thing. But to duck serious prison time and become a star?
These are the people myths will be written about in 3005.