Rap lyrics can't be used as evidence against hip-hop artists in California anymore

California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a visit the Antioch Water Treatment Plant on August 11, 2022 in Antioch, California.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a visit the Antioch Water Treatment Plant on August 11, 2022 in Antioch, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act into law on Friday.

  • The bill will limit the use of lyrics as evidence in legal proceedings.

  • Advocates of the bill say using lyrics as evidence could be a form of racial bias.

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

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

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

Hip-hop is well-known for having both literal and narrative lyrics — as well as lyrics that are hyperbolic and exaggerated. This is why using lyrics as evidence has been regarded by some legal experts and advocates as a violation of the First Amendment and a way to enforce racist stereotypes.

The American Civil Liberties Union said almost all cases that use 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. 

"Notwithstanding the conventions of the genre, drill-style rap enjoys the same constitutional protection as other forms of artistic expression.  The trial court in this case treated rap music as inherently more incriminating than other artistic and musical forms," the amicus brief filed by the ACLU read.

 

Before his untimely death, Drakeo the Ruler faced first-degree murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder charges. In court, prosecutors pulled lyrics from his song "Flex Freestyle" as evidence 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 inject racial bias and confusion into the criminal justice process," entertainment attorney and co-founder of Songwriters of North America, Dina LaPolt, said, according to Variety. SONA has been a proponent of the bill.

"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, Gov. Newsom, for setting the standard. We hope Congress will pass similar legislation, as this is a nationwide problem," she 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 nationally 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 is in a gang, a drug dealer, someone who is violent. Those are the kinds of things that rappers talk about in their raps. Merely saying that someone is a rapper evokes negative perceptions and brings out prejudices. So when you actually introduce the lyrics that the rapper has written and use those lyrics as evidence against them, that seals the deal."

The RAP Act bill has not yet made it to the House floor 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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