The Hip-Hop Professor: Erik Nielson helps juries understand the difference between art and life.

hiphopGary Bradford, a.k.a. Eldorado Red, sits quietly, hands folded on the defendant’s table in courtroom 5E at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta. It’s August 2014, and he’s watching a jury of 16 men and women — black and white — shift uncomfortably in their chairs as they consider his fate. In a crisp, dark-brown suit, the bespectacled Bradford presents himself as a budding 35-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur. An artist. Meanwhile, the State of Georgia is attempting to portray Eldorado Red, the Harlem-born gangsta rapper who wears Blood red and rolls with a gun-toting posse in his music video “100 Shooters.” The prosecution played the video in court yesterday, in the hope that it would help convince the jurors that he was the kind of man capable of the charge in question: orchestrating the 2012 murder of rival rapper Lil Phat in an Atlanta parking garage.

At the moment, the state’s attorneys are protesting a defense expert called in to distinguish between Bradford’s two personas.

“What’s he an expert in?” asks the assistant district attorney, incredulous before the court.

“African-American culture, history, literature, and music,” says Bradford’s attorney Musa Ghanayem.

The assistant district attorney throws his hands up, plops down in his chair, and chuckles as the judge allows Ghanayem to summon Erik Nielson. The snickering spreads across the courtroom — particularly among the black attorneys, reporters, onlookers, and even jurors — as a slight white man in khakis and a navy blue blazer saunters to the witness stand. When Nielson introduces himself in a nasal tone as an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, the bewilderment — even among the white folks in the room — brims over into audible laughter.

From the stand, Nielson appears unshaken. When Ghanayem asks the professor to list some of his credentials, the man in glee-club attire obliges: A dissertation on the relationship between African-American culture and policing, contracts for two books about hip-hop and its use in trials and politics, and an amicus brief in a case before the Supreme Court.

What Nielson doesn’t mention is that he began his scholarship as a teenager in suburban Connecticut in the early 1990s, when he wore baggy pants and hoodies and drove a Subaru that was worth less than its custom Alpine car stereo system. He loved the beat and was drawn to the anti-establishment themes in the lyrics. As a middle-class suburbanite, the experience made him keenly aware of the separation between art and life — just because he listened to rap didn’t mean he knew anything about getting shot or being harassed by police. In fact, he knew, many of the rappers behind the rhymes about gats and crack didn’t necessarily live that way.

That realization has been a slow one for the rest of America. Listeners have never believed that Johnny Cash actually “shot a man in Reno,” but when Ice-T rapped about killing a cop, public outrage forced him to pull the song from his album. In the late 1990s, a Winona State University psychologist presented violent lyrics to two groups of people. One was told the lyrics were from a rap song, the other was told they were pulled from a country song. Far more people in the former group viewed the lyrics as threatening. Since the mid-2000s, when hip-hop truly entered the mainstream, prosecutors have been taking advantage of the public’s prejudice. A 2004 training manual for the National District Attorneys Association instructs: “Through photographs, letters, notes, and even music lyrics, prosecutors can invade and exploit the defendant’s true personality.” Since then, more and more prosecutors across the country have begun to introduce rap lyrics and videos as evidence. Nielson has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost critics of the prosecutorial tactic.

Read the rest at psmag.com

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