Rap lyrics can no longer be used as evidence against hip-hop artists in California

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the decriminalization of artistic expression on Friday.
  • The bill would restrict the use of lyrics as evidence in legal proceedings.
  • Supporters of the bill say using lyrics as evidence could be a form of racial bias.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday that supporters say will help protect artistic expression in hip-hop.

The Artistic Expression Decriminalization Act, also known as AB 2799, aims to minimize the use of rap lyrics against music artists in California courts – as seen in legal proceedings against the late Drakeo the Ruler, Young Thug and Gunna.

Artists such as Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Too $hort, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, E-40 and Tyga were actually present when Newsom signed the bill. The signing was also attended by representatives from the Recording Academy, Black Music Action Coalition and Songwriters of North America.

Hip hop is known for having both literal and narrative lyrics — as well as over-the-top and over-the-top lyrics. This is why the use of lyrics as evidence has been viewed by some legal experts and advocates as a violation of the First Amendment and a way of enforcing racial stereotypes.

The American Civil Liberties Union said nearly all cases using lyrics as evidence involve black or Latino defendants. In a 2020 appeal on behalf of Knoxville rapper Christopher Bassett, the organization argued that rap lyrics are often taken out of context and, in Bassett’s case, completely irrelevant.

“Regardless of genre conventions, drill-style rap enjoys the same constitutional protection as other forms of artistic expression. The court in this case treated rap music as inherently more culpable than other artistic and musical forms,” ​​the amicus brief which filed by ACLU read.

Before his untimely death, Drakeo the Ruler faced first degree murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder charges. In court, prosecutors drew on lyrics from his song “Flex Freestyle” as evidence that he killed a 24-year-old man. The LA rapper was later acquitted of the charges.

“For too long, prosecutors in California have used rap lyrics as a convenient way to introduce racial bias and confusion into the criminal justice process,” said entertainment attorney and Songwriters of North America co-founder Dina LaPolt, according to Variety . SONA was a champion of the bill.

“This legislation puts in place important guardrails that will help courts hold prosecutors accountable and prevent them from criminalizing Black and Brown artistic expression. Thank you, Governor Newsom, for setting the standard. We hope Congress passes similar legislation, as this is a nationwide problem,” he added.

Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis, authors of the book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” estimate that there have been at least 500 cases nationwide in which rap lyrics have been used as criminal evidence since the 1990s.

The California legislation is similar to a federal bill called the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, introduced in the House this summer by Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

Johnson told the Los Angeles Times that “People make the connection between a rapper and someone who’s in a gang, a drug dealer, someone who’s violent. Those are the kinds of things rappers talk about in their raps. Just saying someone is a rapper creates negative perceptions and brings out biases. So when you actually bring in lyrics that the rapper has written and use those lyrics as evidence against them, that seals the deal.”

The RAP Act bill has yet to reach the floor of the House for a vote.

Newsom, the Songwriters of North America and the Black Music Action Coalition did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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