Story at a glance
- Rap Music on Trial is a New York state bill that would prevent prosecutors from using a defendant’s artistic expression as evidence.
- The legislation has passed the initial stages of New York‘s senate but has yet to be voted on.
- Artists like Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean and Fat Joe have supported the bill and signed a letter to state lawmakers urging them to support it.
A law was introduced in New York that would prevent prosecutors from using rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials, with major artists backing the bill.
Titled Rap Music on Trial, the legislation was first introduced in November last year by New York state Sens. Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey. It aims to amend criminal procedure law so criminal defendants cannot be tried based upon their artistic works, like rap music.
The bill contends that artists’ First Amendment right to freedom of artistic expression has been violated in “courtrooms across the country” as artists’ musical works are being admitted against them as evidence in criminal proceedings.
“In many cases, even the mere association with certain genres, like hip-hop and rap, leads to heightened scrutiny in the courtroom and is used to presume guilt, immorality, and propensity for criminal activity,” said Bailey in a statement.
Artists like Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean and Fat Joe are among those supporting the legislation and have also signed a letter to New York state lawmakers to back the bill and uphold freedom of expression, according to Complex.
“This is an issue that’s important to (Jay-Z) and all the other artists that have come together to try to bring about this change. This is a long time coming. Mr. Carter is from New York, and if he can lend his name and his weight, that’s what he wants to do,” said Alex Spiro, Jay-Z’s lawyer, according to Complex.
Rapper Fat Joe, one of the industry’s first Latino superstars that hails from New York City’s South Bronx, shared his perspective as an artist on the importance of passing Rap Music on Trial.
“Our lyrics are a creative form of self-expression and entertainment – just like any other genre. We want our words to be recognized as art rather than being weaponized to get convictions in court. I hope the governor and all the lawmakers in New York take our letter into consideration, protect our artistic rights and make the right decision to pass this bill,” said Fat Joe, according to Complex.
In 2019, Brooklyn rapper Daniel Hernandez, who goes by the stage names Tekashi69 and 6ix9ine, was compelled into becoming a government witness to avoid harsher sentencing after his lyrics were introduced in court as context and he was also questioned about them.
California rapper Drakeo the Ruler was convicted of murder in 2018 after prosecutors also used his lyrics and music videos to prove his guilt and connection to the crime. He later was acquitted of the murder charges in 2019.
In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also challenged the use of artistic expression in criminal cases, filing an amicus brief in the case of Knoxville, Tenn., rapper Christopher Bassett. Basset was convicted of murder, and at his trial, prosecutors showed a rap video featuring Bassett as evidence against him. The ACLU said prosecutors argued Bassett’s sometimes violent and graphic imagery equated to a confession in a song.
If Rap Music on Trial is passed and signed into law it would prohibit New York prosecutors from using creative expression as criminal evidence against a person without clear and convincing proof that there is a literal, factual nexus between the creative expression and the facts of the case.
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