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UR professor and alum collaborate on Sundance-premiering documentary about the use of rap lyrics in court

University of Richmond liberal arts professor Erik Nielson, a leading expert on the use of rap lyrics in court, served as a consulting producer on the new documentary As We Speak, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival recently.

Trevor Dickerson

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University of Richmond liberal arts professor Erik Nielson, a leading expert on the use of rap lyrics in court, served as a consulting producer on the new documentary As We Speak, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival recently. The film, produced by UR alum Sam Widdoes, was one of 10 films in the U.S. documentary competition out of about 12,000 submissions to premiere at Sundance.

The collaboration started when Widdoes, who graduated in 2008, was launching his production company and read about Nielson’s research in the University of Richmond Magazine in 2016. He reached out to Nielson to begin conversations, and following five years of development, the film became a reality.

As We Speak explores the history of rap music and racial bias in music, and includes interviews with legal experts and influential rap artists like Killer Mike, whom Nielson has collaborated with for his book and on draft legislation that would provide guardrails on the use of artistic expression during trials.

“When I read about the work Erik was exploring, I immediately knew I wanted to tell this story in film and examine crucial questions about how music is weaponized in court and who the First Amendment protects,” said Widdoes. “The collaboration and consultation with Erik on his research were vital to making As We Speak a reality.”

“It is a wonderful step in raising awareness to have this topic explored in a way that a broad audience can connect with and understand,” said Nielson.

Nielson, coauthor of Rap on Trial, is interviewed throughout the film, which was inspired by his research on the growing use of rap lyrics as evidence in court cases. Nielson and his colleagues have researched nearly 700 cases where rap lyrics were introduced as evidence.

“It’s insidious, and no other musical genre is treated this way,” Nielson said. “It plays upon racial stereotypes to secure convictions in cases when there might not be much else in the way of evidence.”

Nielson, who has taught at the University of Richmond since 2011, is a sought-after national consultant who is frequently quoted by national media, including being featured on Nightline, CBS This Morning, and Good Morning America. He also serves as an expert witness in court cases, including most recently for the Young Thug RICO case in Atlanta. Nielson teaches classes at the undergraduate and graduate level through UR’s School of Professional & Continuing Studies.

As We Speak is slated to be widely available for streaming via Paramount at the end of February. Nielson hopes to arrange a screening on campus in the fall.

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Trevor Dickerson is the Editor and Co-Founder of RVAHub.