In November 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement arguing that using rap lyrics as evidence during a criminal trial was a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
“If song lyrics could be used as evidence in criminal trials, many of the most famous artists in history would be in serious trouble,” the ACLU said. “Bob Marley sings ‘I Shot the Sheriff.’ The Talking Heads’ biggest hit is ‘Psycho Killer.’ The opening lines to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ are ‘Mama, just killed a man.’ Fortunately for these artists, artistic expression is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.”
Somewhere along the way, in the past few decades, the legal distinction has been made that these same protections don’t apply to rap or hip-hop song lyrics. A Knoxville-based rapper, Christopher Bassett, was convicted for the murder of Zaevion Dobson in 2015, with a video starring Bassett introduced as evidence against him — despite the fact that the video was filmed months before the murder occurred and made no mention of the victim — because sometimes he used violent and graphic imagery in his lyrics.
The tide may be turning.
Jay Z has become the latest prominent and powerful person to speak up and speak out, calling for rules and protections to be applied to all lyrics, regardless of the person writing or performing them.
“Rather than acknowledge rap music as a form of artistic expression, police and prosecutors argue that the lyrics should be interpreted literally — in the words of one prosecutor, as ‘autobiographical journals,” reads a letter signed by Jay Z, Killer Mike, Fat Joe and other musicians, Vulture reports, “even though the genre is rooted in a long tradition of storytelling that privileges figurative language, is steeped in hyperbole, and employs all of the same poetic devices we find in more traditional works of poetry.”
The letter was submitted on behalf and in support of proposed legislation in New York that would disallow the use of rap lyrics as evidence in trials.
The legislation, sponsored by New York City-area Democratic state legislators Brad Holyman and Jamaal Bailey, is called the Rap Music on Trial bill. Introduced in November, the bill would “limit the way all art, including rap lyrics, can be used in trial, unless it can be proven that the artist is literal, factual and relevant, in addition to providing a ‘distinct probative value’ to the case.”
The good news is, the bill passed out of the state Senate committee on Tuesday by an 8-4 vote margin, moving it ahead to the full state Senate for consideration. A companion bill has been introduced in the New York State Assembly.
This isn’t an issue limited to the United States and its messy history when it comes to discrmination and two systems of laws based on the color of a person’s skin and their preferred type of art.
In 2020, prosecutors tried to use lyrics from UK drill rapper Unknown T tried to submit his lyrics as evidence in a murder case but a judge blocked that move prior to Unknown T’s acquittal. In 2018, another drill rapper, known as Digga D, with several Top 40 hits to his name, was given a “criminal behaviour” order preventing him from using specific names, locations and themes in his songs.
There are statistics to back up this bad practice too: the London School of economics studied 30 appeal judgments filed between 2005 and 2020 and found “prosecutors can use lyrics and videos to tell a story of a dangerous rapper that reflects long-standing stereotypes about Black males as criminals,” The Guardian reports. That study found that “rap music is usually presented in court as ‘bad character evidence,’” but at times had been used as direct evidence tying a person to a crime based on their written lyrics.