"It might sound real but it's fictional. I love that my imagination gets to you," Drakeo the Ruler rapped over a telephone line inside the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail. The line was being recorded and could be used against him in court by prosecutors trying him on crimes linked to a 2016 murder. The song is part of his new album "Thank You For Using GTL"; GTL stands for Global Tel Link, the private phone company that handles the telephone calls from prison. Pitchfork called the album "mesmerizing" and The Washington Post called it the "most urgent rap album of the year."
With criminal justice reform in the spotlight, Drakeo's new album may help bring attention to the story of how he ended up in prison in the first place. At the rapper's first trial, prosecutors used his lyrics and videos as evidence that he murdered 24-year-old Davion Gregory at a Los Angeles party. Drakeo, whose real name is Darell Caldwell, maintained he had never been in a gang and that his lyrics were art, not meant to be taken literally.
The jury convicted Caldwell on only one count of illegal gun possession. L.A.'s district attorney refiled charges on criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a vehicle. Because of California's harshly written gang laws, he could face life in prison if convicted.
"I think many people find it difficult to imagine that these young men are doing something complex, sophisticated that could be considered literary, artistic," says Erik Nielson, the co-author of Rap on Trial, which chronicles the growing phenomenon of criminal prosecutors using hip hop music as evidence.
The evidence prosecutors point to can border on the absurd. One video used in Caldwell's first trial featured him rapping and dancing with his crew while holding guns and wearing monkey masks. It comes across as hyperbole, but prosecutors put it in front of a jury anyway.
"I think many of them understand that they are misrepresenting rap lyrics. They know that they're doing that. They're doing it because they want the jury to see this stuff that is salacious, it's profane, and therefore you're compromising somebody's right to a fair trial."
It's a prosecutorial tactic that typically works and has been deployed over and over again since the early 1990s. But, with the rise of Soundcloud, Spotify, and YouTube in the 2000s to 2010s, more rappers found their music used against them in actual criminal cases.
Drakeo talks about this experience in one of his new songs: "I don't want my words twisted or misconstrued. […] Treat rap the same way that you're going to treat any other genre. You're not going to hold Denzel Washington accountable for his role in Training Day, so don't do the same thing with my music."
Caldwell's trial was supposed to happen in early 2020 but has been delayed until August 2020 because of the COVID-19 quarantine.
Correction: The YouTube version of this video misstates the name of Drakeo the Ruler's new album as"Thank You For Choosing GTL." It is "Thank You For Using GTL."
Produced by Paul Detrick; opening graphics by Lex Villena; additional graphics by Detrick and Isaac Reese.
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