On May 17, New York State Senate approved a bill that would limit prosecutors’ use of song lyrics or other forms of “creative expression” as evidence in criminal cases. If passed, prosecutors would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” when citing an artist’s music in a criminal trial.
Dubbed “Rap Music On Trial,” Senate Bill S7527 does not ban prosecutors from presenting lyrics to a jury, but would require them to show that the work is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional.”
Sponsored by Senators Jamaal Bailey and Brad Hoylman, the bill has also received support from artists like Jay-Z, Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Robin Thicke, Fat Joe, and others. Though the bill must pass through the New York State Assembly before becoming a law, a companion bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Catalina Cruz is currently awaiting a vote.
The new bill follows the recent case involving YSL Records rappers Young Thug and Gunna, who are currently facing RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) charges in Georgia, where a large portion of the artists’ lyrics and music videos comprised state evidence of criminal conspiracy.
The indictment centers around the YSL record label, allegedly formed by Thug (real name Jeffery Lamar Williams) in 2012, which authorities claim is a “criminal street gang.” Prosecutors have brought in evidence including lyrics and social media posts, including those by Gunna (Sergio Kitchens) and other YSL associates, which they call “acts in furtherance of the conspiracy,” including a verse in Thug and Gunna’s 2021 song, “Slatty,” featuring Lil Duke and Yak Gotti: I killed his man in front of his momma / Like fuck lil bruh, sister and his cousin.
In 2019, Pittsburgh rapper Jamal Knox, known as Mayhem Mal, was convicted for terroristic threats and intimidation of witnesses over his lyrics to a 2012 song “Fuck the Police.” In his defense, rappers Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Styles P, and Yo Gotti presented the court with a breakdown of the lyrics in a “primer on rap music and hip-hop.”
In the 2013 case Dawson v. Delaware, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to use protected speech as evidence, provided that speech is irrelevant to the case.
Referencing other lyrics including David Byrne’s “Pyscho Killer” and Johnny Cash singing I shot a man in Reno to watch him die, Hoylman said lyrics like these have always been accepted and not used against the artist, while rappers have had their lyrics used against them in court. “[It] reveals a bias in some instances that denigrates certain forms of expression, like rap music,” said Hoylman. “There’s a social justice component to this that meets the moment.”
Bailey added, “There’s a glaring double standard that often happens when it comes to artists of color. There’s a lyric by Jay-Z that always speaks to me: ‘Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me.’ It underlines the point that we don’t see this happening with movies. We don’t see this happening with other forms of creative expression. But we see it happening with hip-hop.”