Erik Nielson
Liberal arts professor Erik Nielson with the film's director, J.M. Harper, and producer Sam Widdoes, a 2008 grad.

Sundance documentary project on rap music features UR professor and alum

February 16, 2024


When alum Sam Widdoes was launching his production company, he read an article that inspired him to film a documentary about rap lyrics and the U.S. criminal justice system. That film premiered at Sundance in January and will be available for streaming later this month.

The article appeared in a 2016 edition of the University of Richmond Magazine. It featured the research of Erik Nielson, a liberal arts professor and leading expert on the use of rap lyrics in court. Widdoes, a 2008 UR graduate, reached out to Nielson to begin conversations, and following five years of collaboration and development, the film became a reality.

As We Speak, which explores the history of rap music and racial bias, was one of 10 films in the U.S. documentary competition out of about 12,000 submissions to premiere at Sundance. Widdoes was a producer, and Nielson was a consulting producer.

"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," Widdoes said. "The collaboration and consultation with Erik on his research were vital to the project."

Nielson, co-author of the book Rap on Trial, investigates the growing use of rap lyrics as evidence in court cases. He and his colleagues have researched nearly 700 cases where lawyers introduced rap lyrics as evidence.

"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, who appears in interviews throughout the film.

Nielson, who has taught at the University of Richmond since 2011, is a sought-after source frequently quoted by national media. He also serves as an expert witness in court cases.

"I find it so cool that my connection to this whole project started with finding Erik in the magazine," Widdoes said. "I'm very proud that Erik is a professor at my alma mater and doing the kind of work he's doing."

As We Speak is slated to be widely available for streaming via Paramount Plus on Feb. 27, and Nielson hopes to arrange a screening on campus in the fall.