In this episode of The Backstory, we’re speaking to reporter Jaeah Lee about her article “This Rap Song Helped Sentence a 17-Year-Old to Prison for Life,” produced in partnership with The New York Times, where Jaeah is a contributing writer for the magazine. For her investigation, Jaeah spent more than two years compiling and analyzing information on hundreds of criminal cases where rap lyrics were used as evidence against defendants, and dove into the case of Tommy Canady, a young man convicted of murder after prosecutors presented his rap lyrics as a confession.
In this conversation, we discuss why she felt it was important to use a data-driven approach for her investigation, why she focused on Canady’s case, and the challenges of having an incarcerated source.
Paco Alvarez: So my first question is what inspired your investigation?
Jaeah Lee: It was actually somewhat random. I was looking for story ideas, this was now maybe four years ago, and I just opened up courthousenews.com and was reading through. I write pretty typically about criminal justice issues. And so I just kind of opened up the page with an open mind. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. And saw a news story about rap lyrics that had been used in a number of trials. It was sort of a trend story. And just the idea that struck me as odd and fascinating, and I wanted to know more about how that even worked and what it sort of opened up for me personally, as someone who's thinking a lot about the legal system and how various people seek justice within it, was this aspect of it that's very important: evidence. How it works, that there are rules that guide this, this whole universe of sources really that tell their own stories that help, whether it's a prosecutor or a defense, determine or rather indicate someone's guilt or innocence. And the stakes just felt so high and the fact that rap lyrics were coming up often enough to warrant news coverage.
Oftentimes, you would see local news reporting about rap lyrics that were used because they're so inflammatory, they tended to get attention when they came up at a trial. And I was, it got me curious about what the broader universe looked like. What did this really mean? What were we essentially implying? What kind of messages are we sending to juries when we use this type of material as evidence? Yeah, so that's sort of how I got introduced to it and it would be a long while till I really knew what the thrust of the story would be.
Alvarez: Part of your findings come from a database you helped build of court cases where rap lyrics were used as evidence. Why was it important to you to approach the story in this way?
Lee: Yeah, it's a good question. So by the time I started digging around in this topic, it was late 2018, 2019, and by that point there had been a fair amount of reporting done around this topic. There were two or three sort of strains of that coverage. One was what I just mentioned –there had been reporting done at the local level, sort of developments on a particular court case, oftentimes it was a homicide or potentially a larger scale drug-related case. And there was that. And then there was sort of another set of op-eds that had been written by scholars and experts who had been very critical of rap lyrics being used as evidence.
And what I wanted to understand was, what were the patterns? How widespread was this practice? It was a little bit hard to tell based on the existing coverageAnd among the people who had been writing about this topic often were a few who had clearly been following it for a long time.
And there were two scholars who I ended up later would partner with, who had been working on a book and, as I spoke to them, I learned that they had been compiling a list of defendants as they came across them in their research and that the list they had compiled had grown into the hundreds. So, I have some background as a data reporter and the data reporter in my brain was sort of like Ding Ding, can we learn more about those 500 names and what would they show us? And that sort of marked the beginning of a very long and winding journey in trying to track down court documents for as many names as we could. And we ended up getting about two hundred in total that I ended up analyzing and writing about in the story that that has resulted.
What we found in the database, I think, in many ways reinforced what we already knew anecdotally about rap on trial, that the majority of defendants who are being tried in these cases and often found guilty, they are black or brown; that the manner in which rap music or lyrics get used is often brought in because there is a purported relevant reason. There's something about the lyrics or music that supposedly ties the defendant to the crime in question. But oftentimes, what happens when the evidence is admitted and then later presented is that the message to the jury is oftentimes sort of related to the defendant's character, whether that's explicit or implicit, the sort of, to varying degrees, spoken or unspoken indication to the jury is that this defendant, even regardless of whether or not there are facts or physical evidence or eyewitnesses tying them to the crime in question, that this is a type of person who could have committed this crime or was more likely to commit this crime. And there is a gray area there of whether or not it is the defendant actually guilty or innocent oftentimes. But what we saw was time and time again, and I think the cases that we really dug into, even just the 200 that we were able to track down out of the 500, that Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielsen had compiled over the years – those cases existed more than I think it's around thirty two states. And so this is a very widespread phenomenon. And I think, to be able to say that and put a number to show some data driven findings gives the issue a further boost, I hope. That's certainly my hope as the journalist, that perhaps provides, whether it's scholars or attorneys or whoever it is looking into this issue in the future, some firmer grounds to base their arguments in.
Alvarez: You mentioned this now and then also in your article, but it's obvious that there's like a racialized nature to this type of evidence because it's primarily rap lyrics that are used as opposed to lyrics from other genres. Did you find any cases where other forms of art were used as evidence?
Lee: I did. The classic or typical example of the type of criminal case you might see that involves music that isn't rap, for example, like heavy metal – I think heavy metal is probably the second most common that I was able to find. And even then, there are just a handful compared to hundreds and hundreds of examples we found when searching for rap lyrics. The difference is that when it comes to something like heavy metal music or rock, it's mostly about – did this particular song influence the defendant to behave or to commit the crime that they committed? I did find some non-music examples that were somewhat similar. There were a handful of cases and really I mean a handful – like I was able to find about five cases in my search. And granted there are probably more, but there's such a clear contrast between the handful of non-rap cases versus rap cases.
There were a number, around five or so cases I found that were not even music related, but more so had to do with another piece of writing fiction or a novella that the defendant had allegedly written before. And oftentimes they were tied to maybe like a threat case, someone threatening to assault or attack a school. I think one case had to do with a threat involving a potential school shooting that never happened. So there were a number of exceptions, examples that I was able to find that did not involve rap.
However, what sets rap apart based on our review is that when it comes to rap lyrics cases, we're often talk about talking the lyrics or music video and interpreting the lyrics themselves quite literally to point to it and say this is proof of the confession or proof of a motive, or proof that these two or three or four defendants, co-defendants were all involved in a gang and committed this crime for gang related reasons. And so it's that literal interpretation that I think is particularly unique to rap.
Alvarez: Your article deals specifically with the case of Tommy Canady, who was found guilty of murder after prosecutors used one of his songs as evidence in court. What drew you to his case in particular?
Lee: Yeah, there were so many cases that were worth focusing on. One of the things that I think set Tommy Canady’s case apart was how young he was when he was convicted. I believe he had just turned 15 at the time he was arrested. And by the time he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 50 years, it was a month before he turned 18, so he was 17. So very young. Oftentimes in these cases, what we found is that rap lyrics or otherwise, it is not the only piece of evidence that's presented or pursued. And that was true in Tommy Canady’s case. But there was such a heavy focus on rap lyrics in the case that it allowed us to really kind of dissect the various ways in which lyrics get introduced. So in Tommy Canady’s case, a rap song that he had uploaded to SoundCloud, became the first major lead that led to his arrest.
It was actually discovered, the song was sort of passed on to the police from the victim's family, Semar McClain's family, who rightfully, justifiably were desperate for answers and in need of understanding who done this very brutal, awful thing and taking away the life of their loved one. Sent the song to the police, saying that they believed that they heard the name of their son, Semar, and this became the sort of primary thing that in the minds of the police and prosecutors linked Tommy to this crime. And later it would be discovered through Tommy's own appealing his conviction that – his argument throughout his trial and throughout his appeal has been that he did not say the victim's name and that an isolated vocal tract would demonstrate what he meant.
The prosecutors at trial would argue that the song essentially showed that he was confessing, Tommy Canady was confessing to the murder. They also presented written lyrics, lyrics that Tommy had written while in jail awaiting trial, and the sort of collective portrait that these the rap lyrics in this song painted in, as the prosecutors would argue, was that not only was this someone who was cold hearted enough to commit a murder, but then was the type of person to then brag about it in a song. And that was sort of be the kind of one of the central messages relayed to the jury.most of the other evidence that was presented against Tommy Canady was quite circumstantial. And the question that I asked throughout the story is sort of whether or not without rap lyrics, would the jury still have found him guilty. And that’s sort of the question I think in so many of these cases – it is hard to kind of pick apart one one piece of evidence and say, this was clearly indicative of guilt or innocence. And in the vast majority of cases you're often more in this gray area and it all comes down to that central standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. And that's the question that we're asking here and that we're raising for all of the cases that we reviewed.
Alvarez: And how did you initially connect with Tommy? What are some of the challenges of reporting on a story in which a primary source is incarcerated?
Lee: This is true for probably every every aspect of reporting this story. And communicating with Tommy was very exemplary of this dynamic, which is just that everything takes time. It was easy enough to find out where Tommy Canady was incarcerated. And fortunately, he is currently incarcerated in Wisconsin State Prison and the Wisconsin state prison system allows anyone to send a letter to someone who is incarcerated in their system through email, essentially. And so I was able to email him. I also sent him a letter by mail and hoped that one of them would reach him. Of course, I wasn't sure if it would at first. And so mostly we began through email and we mostly corresponded over email and along with some phone calls as well as handwritten letters.
I think I've reported on and with enough people by now in my career, with people who have been incarcerated to know that when I don't hear back for weeks at a time, which is actually quite typical, not to panic and that oftentimes, it's just the access is just difficult. And that's not, putting aside the reporter's ability to communicate with someone who's on the inside,but this is most true for someone on the inside who doesn't always know when they'll get access to a phone or access to a tablet or computer to reach the outside world. I will say COVID slowed things down, especially because there had been a number of quarantines, either because Tommy himself had been transported to County Jail and back for a hearing on his appeal, or because someone in the prison had tested positive and they had to isolate everyone. Tommy ended up testing positive at one point and had to be isolated for several weeks. And yeah, it's just important to understand how life inside prison works and how the daily rhythms that we experience on the outside look very different. So just kind of adjusting to that pace I think can be a challenge.