California Passes Law Limiting the Use of Rap Lyrics as Evidence Against Artists

California has become the first state in the U.S. to limit the use of rap lyrics as circumstantial evidence, against the artist who wrote them, in court.

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On Sept. 30, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill AB 2799, or The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, limiting the use of “creative content” against rappers and musicians in the state. In the state, an artist’s lyrics cannot be used as evidence unless a judge reviews and approves, and deem them necessary. Rappers Meek Mill, Killer Mike, Ty Dolla $ign, and E-40, along with the Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason, Jr. and representatives for the Songwriters of North America (SONA) and the Black Music Action Coalition, were present during the virtual signing ceremony. 

“For too long, prosecutors in California have used rap lyrics as a convenient way to inject racial bias and confusion into the criminal justice process,” said Dina LaPolt, co-founder of SONA, in a statement. “This legislation sets up 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 will pass similar legislation, as this is a nationwide problem.”

The first bill of its kind, the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, comes after the recent trials of rappers Young Thug and Gunna, who were indicted when lyrics used in their songs were used as evidence against them.

“This racially targeted practice punishes already marginalized communities and their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph,” said Kevin Liles, chairman and CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment in a recent statement. Prior to the passing of the AB 2799 bill, Liles and Atlantic Records chairman and COO Julie Greenwald started a petition earlier in 2022, “Rap Music on Trial: Protect Black Art,” to bring attention to the then-pending law.

“Authorities are criminalizing black creativity and artistry and this bill will help end that,” added Liles. “We must protect black art.”

The practice of presenting rap lyrics as evidence against the artist who created them has frequently been condemned by music and law critics, who have argued that presenting rap lyrics can introduce racial biases as well as discredit the art of the genre. The AB 2799 legislation states that judges must consider whether introducing rap lyrics as evidence would “inject racial bias into the proceedings.”

Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, who introduced AB 2799, said the bill “will give judges needed guidance for evaluating whether a creative expression is admissible during a criminal trial and provides a framework which will ensure creative expression [and] will not be used to trigger or reinforce stereotypes or activate racial bias.”

In July 2022, a similar bill, the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (also known as the RAP Act) was introduced to Congress, which would limit the use of creative evidence against the individual who created it.

Another bill recently passed by the New York State Senate, S7527, also known as the “Rap Music on Trial” bill, is currently up for a vote by the New York State Assembly. Introduced by Senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey and assembly member Catalina Cruz, the legislation would limit a defendant’s music or other “creative expression” shown to a jury during criminal trials and require prosecutors to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the expression [lyrics] is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional.”

Rappers Jay-Z and Meek Mill, Fat Joe, Kelly Rowland, and Killer Mike, along with Reform Alliance—a non-profit working on parole, probation, and sentencing reform in the United States—have already signed a letter urging lawmakers to pass the bill in New York.

Photo: Getty Images

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