California Passes Bill on Rap Lyrics in Court

California Passes Bill on Rap Lyrics in Court

Following the passage of legislation in New York and a proposal put before Congress, California has become the latest state to pass a law restricting the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court.

The California State Senate and Assembly have voted unanimously in favor of Bill AB 2799, which prevents prosecutors from citing lyrics as evidence in court unless they're able to illustrate that it has direct relevance to the case and won't "inject racial bias into the proceedings."

The bill, which defines creative expression as being the use of creativity or imagination when making “sounds, words, movements or symbols,” would also require that courts allow experts in the given genre of expression to testify, as well as cite research and studies about how rap has been met with a racial bias. The bill is currently set to go to Governor Gavin Newsom's desk where he is expected to sign it into law.

"Under current law rap artists can feel as though they are being read their Miranda Rights before they even begin to write music: 'You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,'" the bill’s author, Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, said in a statement to Pitchfork.

He continued, "We should not stymie the creative expression of artists. Unfortunately, racial biases play a role when talking about musical genres. Rap music lyrics share many similarities to that of other musical categories yet are singled out by the judicial system to characterize an artist. AB 2799 would disallow prosecutors from triggering racial biases or reinforcing racial stereotypes and it gives judges guidance on the use of creative expression in court.”

This bill comes as the latest move in a larger nationwide effort to tackle the legality of using art as evidence. The issue has long remained a thorny subject with debate over what does and doesn't fall under freedom of speech protections, but has recently been thrust back into the spotlight following the arrests of Young Thug and Gunna in the YSL RICO case.

New York State Senate passed a bill similar to California's back in May that would raise the evidential burden of proof for prosecutors to show that the material presented to the court is "literal, rather than figurative or fictional." The bill did ultimately not pass the state's Assembly, but a similar bill was introduced by New York and Georgia Democrats into Congress that would bolster protections for rap lyrics.

The Restoring Artist Protection (RAP) Act would aim "to limit the admissibility of evidence of a defendant’s creative or artistic expression against such defendant in criminal proceeding, and for other purposes" by requiring prosecutors to argue in an outside hearing that the lyrics fall under one of the outlined exceptions.

Photo via Getty/Justin Sullivan