The “other” Kemba movie — “As We Speak” — is out this week on Paramount+

February 28, 2024

“The new film As We Speak challenges us to think twice about the foundational free speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment when it comes to protecting artistic expression.

“The documentary from J.M. Harper (Emmy nominee for the mini-series Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy) traces how rap lyrics become evidence in the courtroom—a practice that contributes to the disproportionate criminalization of young Black artists.

The documentary compellingly portrays the criminal justice system as inherently biased against especially young Black men

“In a captivating series of interviews, animations, historical footage, and enactments, the film offers a new window into a decades-old issue that remains dangerously relevant to Black rappers in America today.

As We Speak’s debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival coincides with the high-profile trial of rapper Young Thug, who still faces RICO charges for racketeering in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. The presiding judge recently deemed Young Thug’s rap lyrics admissible in court to support the government’s case against him. He and his twenty-eight co-defendants are accused of gang activity, including street racing, selling marijuana and cocaine, and possessing firearms.

“Young Thug was arrested in summer 2022—while the film was still in development—and is one of at least 700 prosecutions where rap lyrics have been introduced as evidence since the 1990s. The actual number of potential cases is unknown, given how few—less than 1 percent in 2022—go to trial because most defendants make plea deals to avoid the risk of going to court. Two years later, Young Thug remains in prison during his ongoing trial and faces twenty years in prison if convicted.

“At the center of As We Speak is the thirty-three-year-old Bronx native and underground rapper Kemba, who takes viewers on his own journey of discovery into the past, present, and future of Black art being used as evidence to condemn its creators. Before the film, Kemba was aware of this issue threatening his artistic community, but was himself surprised by its sheer magnitude. …

“The documentary compellingly portrays the criminal justice system as inherently biased against especially young Black men—preyed on by police, and handed over to prosecutors who are concerned only with their conviction rates. In leading Kemba through a dramatized example of the process based on case histories, the film reveals the courtroom as a surreal stage where rap lyrics are stripped of their cultural context and wielded by men in suits and robes to conjure the specter of the dangerous Black criminal.

“Regardless of their relevance to the charges, prosecutors have used musical snippets to sway jurors into believing that the defendant is predisposed to criminal behavior. Somehow, this tactic bypasses the legal boundaries of ‘character evidence,’ which should be inadmissible in U.S. courts.”

As We Speak premiered on Paramount+ February 27.

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