Rap isn’t my favourite music, but the other day when I heard a podcast on CBC about rappers being arrested for the content of their lyrics, I was intrigued. Sure, there’s a lot of violent ideas floating around the rap-o-sphere, but the crux of the segment on Q was this: is it fair to use art as evidence of a crime? I would take that argument a little further: If we consider the old adage “write what you know,” is it okay to hold an artist accountable for what they write?
Truth isn’t Always Stranger than Fiction
It could be that using art as evidence is totally bunk. I mean, yes, Sylvia Plath was kind of loony. Her writings were creepy and she met a rather grisly end. In this way, it’s kind of easy to see how art imitates life in a real way. Way back in the day of pantaloons, Voltaire got sent to prison countless times for making fun of the government and the Catholic Church in his writings, which were used as evidence too.
But here’s the thing: not all art is representative of real events. Dare I mention James Frey and his not-so-true memoir “A Million Little Pieces?” The Oprah of 2003 was mighty peeved when she learned that Frey was stretching the truth. It was verisimilitude, he claimed (I think)–or maybe other people argued that for him.
What it makes me think is this:
Truth and fiction are kind of intertwined. So just how much do you want to read between the lines?
Marketing Gone Awry
Later in the CBC program, it came out that in many cases, those rappers whose lyrics are being used against them openly say that they have committed these acts of violence and drugs as a marketing strategy. Some of them never actually dealt drugs, but the act of spreading that “truth” gives their brand credibility. It seems a lot like a less PG version of verisimilitude–a popular literary strategy where authors imply that at least some parts of a work of fiction are true based on elements inside the text, song, what have you that are real.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand drawn treasure map is one prime example. When the book came out, there were even people who searched for the fictitious treasure island because of the map. Okay, so a treasure hunt is not the same as the rather violent lyrics of many rap songs today.
I still can’t help thinking that it is just a tad creepy that any artist–regardless of what they write–would have their words used against them in court.
Write What You Know
Let’s forget about the rappers for a while. What about the other side of this whole art as confession argument? Let’s say for the moment that truth and fiction are hopelessly blurred, and sometimes it backfires.
In other literary news, John Green is in the doghouse for his latest work, “The Fault in Our Stars,” because he is neither a teenage girl, nor is he (hopefully) dying of cancer. Some readers were
outraged upset about this real-life detail, since it was not his experience to write about.
One reviewer writes:
Was this John Green’s story to tell? None of the readers of this novel who have not experienced the kind of loss depicted here have a right to laugh at any of it. (Read more of this review here).
…It’s a pretty complicated issue. John Green arguably hasn’t lived that experience. However, I would argue that many writers haven’t really experienced what they write about first hand. I mean, let me know if I’m wrong here, but J.R.R. Tolkien never went on a long journey to Mordor, nor did he know any trolls or wizards. The jury is still out as to whether or not he was a hobbit. And if Terry Pratchett only wrote about what he knew, Discworld probably wouldn’t exist, considering that most of the things that he writes about are fantastical (but awesome).
If writing not entirely truthfully means being disrespectful and singing or rapping about violent acts can land you in the slammer, what’s an artist to do?
What’s your take? Should art be used as evidence in a court of law? Just what should writers be writing about anyway?