Should Rap Lyrics Be Admissible in Court?

A new California bill is part of a nationwide effort to protect creative expression and prevent racial bias

Hip-hop artists Young Thug and Gunna attend a release party for Young Thug's new album "PUNK" at Delilah on October 12, 2021.
Lyrics written by Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna are being used against them in court. Photo by Michael Tullberg / Getty Images

Young Thug and Gunna, two prominent rappers in the Atlanta hip-hop scene, are currently facing charges of alleged gang-related activity—and their own lyrics are helping build the case. 

Thug and Gunna are just the latest in a line of rappers whose lyrics have been used against them in court as evidence. In these cases, prosecutors treat rap lyrics as “nothing more than autobiographical accounts—denying rap the status of art,” Charis E. Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine, tells the New York Times’ Livia Albeck-Ripka. 

But in California, that tactic may soon be illegal.

bill, which would restrict the use of lyrics and other creative expressions as evidence in criminal proceedings, has passed unanimously in both houses of the California legislature; it now awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. The bill would require a court to consider the possibility that such evidence could “inject racial bias” into criminal proceedings.

In light of the indictment of Thug and Gunna, activists and fans have adamantly supported the bill. But its breadth spans beyond rap, protecting other genres of music as well as poetry, film, dance, visual art and writing.

“It has broader implications than just music,” Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, who introduced the bill, tells Billboard’s Bill Donahue. “This is about the right to free speech under the First Amendment and just as important, especially to people of color, it’s about the right to have a fair trial, regardless of your profession or what you say in public. To have that used against you—it’s wrong.”

California is not the first state to attempt such a law. Earlier this year, New York’s State Senate passed a similar bill, which received public support from stars like Jay-ZMeek MillBig Sean and Robin Thicke.

Similar legislation is unfolding on the federal level, too. In July, two Congressmen, Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York, introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, which aims to “protect artists from the wrongful use of their lyrics against them in criminal and civil proceedings.” 

In a statement, Johnson’s team quotes from a 2021 case, Bey-Cousin v. Powell, in which defendants sought to use hip-hop artist Muadhdhin Bey-Cousin’s lyrics against him.

“Freddy Mercury did not confess to having ‘just killed a man’ by putting ‘a gun against his head’ and ‘pull[ing] the trigger.’ Bob Marley did not confess to having shot a sheriff. And Johnny Cash did not confess to shooting ‘a man in Reno just to watch him die,’” the 2021 opinion reads.

Jones-Sawyer believes that if California passes this bill, it could turn the tide for courts across the country, he tells Billboard

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the country,” he says. “We are famous for being the first to tackle the hard issues, we’re famous for having progressive ideas and rights and for pushing the envelope.”

California is also the setting for one of the earliest prominent examples of rap lyrics being used as legal evidence. In 1996, Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr., known better as Snoop Dogg, was tried for murder in Los Angeles, and prosecutors cited lyrics from “Murder Was the Case” as evidence aginst him. The rapper was acquitted.

Groups like the Black Music Action Coalition California, the Public Defenders Association and Smart Justice California have endorsed the California bill, per the Times. So has Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, the group behind the Grammys.

“It’s bigger than any one individual case,” Mason tells the Times. “In no way, at no time, do I feel that someone’s art should be used against them.”

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