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Federal RAP Act would prohibit use of rap lyrics in criminal prosecutions

After legislators in New York took on a battle to limit, or prohibit, the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal prosecutions, a federal bill has been introduced that would take the same action. 

Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) have introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act), inspired by the proposed New York State law, which would “sharply limit when any form of creative or artistic expression could be used as evidence against the person who created it.” 

To put it simply, lyrics have been judged as either artistic expression or as evidence in the premeditation or execution of a crime, depending on what kind of music they’re attached to. No one really thought Eric Clapton shot a sheriff, but in the case of rappers or artists of color, their lyrics are often used against them in court when they’ve been accused of crimes, typically violent ones. 

Right now, two artists, Young Thug and Gunna, are facing criminal charges after being indicted in May along with 26 other reported members of Young Slime Life, an alleged gang in Atlanta. Prosecutors in that case pointed to lyrics from Young Thug’s music, including a 2018 video in which he rapped “I never killed anybody but got something to do with that body.” 

They are far from the first ones to be in this situation. 

In 2019, a case built against the Nine Trey Gangsters included lyrics from Tekashi 6ix9ine, which were “used to compel (a defendant) into becoming a government witness to avoid harsher sentencing.” In 2021, lyrics were introduced as evidence in a murder trial against Lawrence Montague. In 2016, California rapper Drakeo the Ruler found his own lyrics used against him in a murder trail — he was first convicted on those charges but was later acquitted. Others, including Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, 21 Savage and Fat Joe have previously signed onto amicus briefs in other cases involving rappers whose lyrics have been used against them. 

“Our judicial system disparately criminalizes Black and Brown lives, including Black and Brown creativity,” Bowman said in a statement Tuesday introducing the federal bill. “We cannot imprison our talented artists for expressing their experiences nor will we let their creativity be suppressed.” 

If passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress, the RAP Act would make the use of lyrics inadmissible in federal criminal cases. Prosecutors who wanted to use lyrics as evidence of a crime would have to show “clear and convincing evidence” that there is a real and direct relationship between what was said and what was done, along with concrete evidence proving it to be valid. 

In addition to New York State’s bill, which passed in the  state Senate committee earlier this year but did not come up for a vote in the state Assembly before the current session ended, California has introduced Assembly Bill 2799, the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act. 

Given that there are other pressing matters before the U.S. Congress, it is unclear whether or when this new proposed federal bill will be considered, but that hasn’t stopped music industry voices from sharing their support. 

Harvey Mason Jr., Recording Academy CEO, and Rico Love, chair of the academy’s Black Music Collective, released a joint statement in support of the act, calling it a “crucial step forward in the ongoing battle to stop the weaponization of creative expression as a prosecution tactic.”

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 521 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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