Tay-K, Robert Mueller and the Application of Justice in 2019

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The week of July 22 has been a big one for lawyers, politicos and Hip Hop fans. Those of us who exist somewhere in the center of those identities have been overwhelmed both emotionally and intellectually, left to wonder how these instances characterize justice in the 2010’s.

By Jaylin Paschal

This week seemed to be the end of two dramatic crime sagas: The story of Tay-K, the teenage rapper convicted with homicide, concluded with a 55-year sentence. The story of Robert Mueller’s infamous investigation came to a head with a highly-anticipated congressional hearing. Both sagas tell a story about justice: where it exists, who fights for it and how it is applied.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone that the court’s eagerness to lock away a black teenage rapper and its hesitation to charge a wealthy, white sitting president presents a notable discrepancy. No part of that offers new insight into society, especially with America’s history of disproportionately prosecuting and imprisoning black men in comparison to white men; poor people in comparison to the rich.

What is interesting is how these stories hit touch points in 2019; how they wrap up a decade and introduce a presidential election cycle.

I should say here, up front, that I think Tay-K’s story differs from that of other young, black boys facing murder charges in one key way: Braggadocio. While the system creates poverty-stricken communities which are bound to incite violence, Tay-K still built a career and brand around killing someone and (almost) getting away with it. Murder is one thing. Doing the dash is one thing. But capitalizing off of that to propel your rap career is another, more complicated thing.

Tay-K is not the first, and won’t be the last, in the industry to stand upon a history of violence for profitability or street credibility. In Hip Hop, we hardly bat an eye at murder confessions. It’s a pattern in this culture that’s tricky, especially as lawyers argue whether or not music and artist branding can be used as evidence or admission of guilt. Although a legal gray area, there’s a clear moral stance: Flipping your bodies into a brand is ugly.

It’s because of this point in Tay-K’s story that I’m leery in mirroring his circumstances with those of other young black men in similar positions. While they may have fallen victim to the system in the same way, or murdered in the same way, they probably didn’t capitalize on the death in the same way.

(It’s here where some may argue that Tay-K was telling his story, as is the right of honest artists in any cultural space, but especially in Hip Hop. It’s a valid point, but I think Tay-K straddled the fine line between being honest about murder and bragging about murder. The two are different in tone and intent.)

With all of this being said, seeing a teenage black boy sentenced to a life behind bars is deeply disheartening. We imagine all the ways in which the system could swallow our loved ones whole, proving prosecutors were successful in making an example of the up and coming rap star. It’s almost impossible to avoid thinking of all the ways we could have saved him, or at least empowered and enabled him to save himself. It begs the question – is life imprisonment justice in regards to Tay-K? A more meaningful justice would have been an equitable country that didn’t create these environments in which young black men find themselves committing murders in the first place. A more meaningful justice isn’t just what happens after a crime– but what happened before it.

The story reads like a movie: A robbery goes wrong and leads to a murder. After being arrested and awaiting trial on house arrest, Tay-K cuts off his ankle monitor and goes on the run. He records his story and releases “The Race” on the same day he’s arrested again. After a long, high profile trial he is found guilty. 55 years. “Justice” prevails.

And now, many fans who played Tay-K’s saga on repeat have no sympathy for the essential end of his life. Entertainment doesn’t translate into empathy, and none of it translates into justice.

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In another world, Robert Mueller is answering questions about justice (and the obstruction of it) to a congressional panel. While many conservatives are looking to deem Mueller’s investigation illegal due to origin, progressives are looking for him to highlight any high crimes or misdemeanors that might justify the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The report itself is damning, or rather, would be damning in a truly justice-seeking country. It finds that not only did Russians interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and not only did they specifically seek to aid Donald Trump, and not only did his campaign welcome this involvement, but Trump also did everything in his power to prevent all of this information from coming to light. While President Trump told his brigade of followers that the Mueller report exonerated him, it specifically did not. The report ended by stating that while there was no proof of his guilt, there was also no proof of his innocence. Mueller himself testified that the only reason he did not charge Trump was because it was illegal for him to indict a sitting president. Still, people are itching to dramatize the hearing.

Mueller, who clearly did not want to testify and considered his report his testimony, was called up anyway to fuel the political fire raging in this country. The questions, asked and answered in his 400-page report, were not designed to bring justice to the American people, but rather talking points to the partisan figures.

Drama during this political administration is not out of the ordinary. It hardly counts as drama. But Robert Mueller’s investigation has yielded the most important headlines in the world. It’s drawn comparisons to entertainment programming like Scandal and House of Cards. It’s been, despite Mueller’s clear opposition to it, dramatized.

Since then, congressional members have tiptoed around the idea of impeachment and even charging Trump after he leaves office. From racial discrimination to tax evasion to obstruction of justice to rape, Donald Trump stands accused of countless crimes and there is no substantial movement towards holding him accountable for any of them.

Both stories, we’ve watched carefully, almost gleefully. We jeer and heckle; rap along and tweet jokingly. Is justice more about the performance of it than the actual existence of it?

America would have us believe that no one is above the law– not 17 year-old rappers and not 70 year-old presidents. We have to ask why then we discuss a teenage rapper with more disgust and less patience than we discuss the leader of the free world who stands accused of treason, fraud and a literal slew of other offenses. While excuses are being made for a president who grew up more privileged and affluent that most of the world, why are we reluctant to dig deeper to reason with a 19 year old from Arlington, TX. When the swift hammer of justice is brought down for one and wielded much more carefully than another, it’s hard to imagine us entering the decade a just people. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine us entering the decade with any stronger sense of what the hell justice even is. From Tay-K to Robert Mueller, we’ve seen it be skewed and manipulated; robbed of context and nuance; made a spectacle. The application of justice is more about the show. It almost makes sense that Kim Kardashian, the woman who can capture attention arguably better than anyone, is someone who is centering herself in the justice conversation and is, seemingly, good distributing it.

It is a perfect, though harrowing, way to characterize the nature of justice in the 2010’s. From George Zimmerman to the new Exonerated Five, the decade has been riddled with closely followed, highly dramatized legal cases.

Jaylin PaschalComment