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The Hip-Hop Professor

When prosecutors introduce song lyrics as evidence of crime, defense lawyers call the University of Richmond's Erik Nielson, a rap expert who helps juries understand the difference between art and life.
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A businessman walks past a U.S. flag flying at half mast as people return to work at the Fulton County Superior Courthouse on March 14th, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia.

A businessman walks past a U.S. flag flying at half mast as people return to work at the Fulton County Superior Courthouse on March 14th, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Gary 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.

“The whole purpose of your testimony is to talk about the creativity and the fictional aspect of rap,” says the assistant district attorney, during cross-examination, no longer laughing, but on the attack. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes,” Nielson says. “I believe that is one of my purposes.”

“But as you sit here today,” the attorney says, “you don’t know what’s fictional and what’s not fictional, do you?”

“Yes, I do,” Nielson says calmly.

“OK, so you’re in the mind of Eldorado Red when he’s rapping in these videos?”

“See, you’re making a mistake right there, because Eldorado Red is fictional.”

“OK, Gary Bradford.”

“No, I’m not inside his mind.”

“OK, so you don’t really know whether he believes Eldorado Red is a fictional character.”

“I think you’re confusing fiction and, maybe, reality,” Nielson says. “American Psycho. Bret [Easton] Ellis, the author: well known for drawing on certain aspects of his own personal life. It’s told in the first person, but nobody believes that he actually committed the heinous crimes, the serial killings that take place in that. We call that fiction, even if it has elements that correspond to reality.”

At one point, Nielson mentions that even the name Eldorado Red is taken from an eponymous 1970s crime novel about a Detroit racketeer. He has instant recall of Bradford’s oeuvre.

“In some [videos], he’s got a Learjet and a Ferrari. In others he doesn’t even have a, excuse my language, a pot to piss in,” Nielson says. “He is exploring identity through his music.”

A few of the jurors, particularly the older ones, have been unable to shake their bemusement, a couple even rolling their eyes as Nielson speaks.

The jurors in courtroom 5E are not alone in their skepticism. “Older, white, suburban jurors who hear people talking about shooting up things and selling drugs think, ‘Why would they be saying that without doing it?’” says John Hamasaki, a San Francisco defense attorney who regularly defends these cases and has worked with Nielson. “We have trouble convincing some that people from inner-city, lower-income families are capable of producing art. The fact that Nielson is a middle-class white guy in a suit talking about hip-hop, does that make it easier for white jurors to understand? I think having someone of his background is appealing.”

After almost 30 minutes of sparring with the increasingly frustrated assistant district attorney, Nielson appears to have turned the defense’s argument on its head. The prosecutor, at least, has lost his smile.

“You don’t know whether or not Eldorado Red is, in fact, the real person or the fictional person,” the attorney says. “Do you?”

It’s the professor’s turn to roll his eyes. He stifles a laugh.

“I know that Eldorado Red derives from a work of fiction,” Nielson says. “And that if I’m only looking at the fictional works that Mr. Bradford has created as that character, that that is fiction.”

The prosecution has had enough. “I have no further use of this…” the assistant district attorney says, turning back to his seat in exasperation.

Nielson is eventually dismissed and again feels the stares and hears the giggles as he exits the courtroom — though neither is quite as intense as when he entered.

It’s hard to say what impact Nielson has had here: Bradford will be acquitted of the murder charge, but convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime and participation in criminal street gang activity.

By the time the verdict is read a week later, the professor is back home in Brooklyn, preparing for the next case.

“We ask rappers to adopt this image of the thug, the gangster,” he says later, over a vodka cocktail at a bar near his home. “That’s what we demand, and that’s what many aspiring rappers believe is what is required. So when we dangle this offer of a legitimate way out of crime and poverty, it is deeply unfair — it’s cruel — that we punish the same thing.”