Music News

NY takes first big step toward preventing lyrics from being used as evidence 

The New York State Senate on Tuesday passed a law that would make it much more difficult to submit rap lyrics in criminal trials. 

The bill, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, would only allow lyrics to be presented to juries as evidence during trials if the prosecution could link the words to actual, real actions, rather than just suggestions of a possible activity. 

“Criminal cases should be tried on factual evidence, not the creative expression of an artist, but unfortunately hip hop has been held to a very different standard in the criminal justice system within the last three decades,” says Mac Phipps. He knows whereof he speaks: In 2001, the rapper was convicted of manslaughter after his own lyrics were presented as evidence against him on trial. He served 20 years of a 30-year sentence before being freed. “The passage of the New York bill gives me hope that situations like the one I faced will be prevented from happening to other artists in the future.” 

The bill, proposed by New York City-area Democratic legislators Brad Holyman and Jamaal Bailey, had earned the attention and support of other musicians, including Jay Z, Killer Mike, Fat Joe and others, who called out the racism and limited scope of using lyrics as evidence in trials — while lyrics from other genres of music had been protected under the First Amendment as creative expression, rap lyrics have historically been viewed as confessional or as concrete evidence that a person (and typically a Black man) was admitting to the crime for which he was charged. 

“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,’” the artists said in a statement released in January, when the bill was first introduced. That approach denies that “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 bill’s passage comes as two other rappers, Young Thug and Gunna, are facing racketeering and corruption charges in Georgia and the case against them relies heavily on their lyrics and music videos as evidence of criminal conspiracy. It also builds on a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to use protected speech — that is, free speech and including artistic expression — as evidence in a criminal trial, provided that the speech is irrelevant to the case and the charges being argued. 

Before the bill can become state law, the New York State Assembly must pass a companion law, which would then go before Governor Kathy Hochul to sign. The companion law, filed by Assembly member Catalina Cruz (Democrat, Queens), is still pending consideration and vote. 

Amber Healy

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

Amber Healy has 522 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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