Rap on Capitol Hill: Proposed federal law would ban lyrics from criminal cases

A bill introduced in Congress on Tuesday (July 27) would greatly limit when federal prosecutors can cite rap lyrics as evidence in a criminal case, mirroring recent efforts in California and New York to further restrict it controversial practices.

Introduced by US Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act) would sharply limit when any form of creative or artistic expression can be used as evidence against the person who created it.

“Our justice system disproportionately criminalizes black and brown lives, including black and brown creativity,” Bowman said in a statement announcing the bill. “We cannot imprison our talented artists for expressing their experiences, nor will we allow their creativity to be suppressed.”

The bill, the first of its kind at the federal level, aims to curb the practice say critics provides little insight into an actual crime and can unfairly influence juries with a disproportionate impact on black men. Although long controversial, the issue has jumped back into the headlines as a high-profile accusation against rappers Young Thug and Gunna to quoted heavily from their texts.

In technical terms, the RAP Act would make an accused defendant’s “creative or artistic expression” presumptively inadmissible in federal criminal cases. If prosecutors want to quote a song to help win a conviction, they must first show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant intended it to have “a literal meaning,” that it directly applies to the crime in question, that it is relevant to a disputed issue and that other evidence cannot be used in its place.

This structure closely mirrors New York’s proposed Senate Bill S7527, known as “Rap Music on Trial”, and California’s Assembly Bill 2799, known as the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, both of which would create similar presumptions against the use of creative works as evidence. The New York bill passed the state senate in May but failed to secure a vote in the New York Assembly before the close of that year’s session; the California bill cleared committee and is currently awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

It is unclear whether the new federal bill has any real chance of passing; Such legislation often takes years of lobbying and multiple reintroductions to build enough momentum to pass. But the announcement quickly drew praise from many members of the music industry.

In a joint statement, the Recording Academy CEO says Harvey Mason Jr. and Rico Lovechairman of the Academy’s Black Music Collective, called the RAP Act “a crucial step forward in the ongoing fight to end the weaponization of creative expression as a prosecution tactic.”

“The bias against rap music has been present in our justice system for far too long and it is time we put an end to this unconstitutional practice,” they said. “We will continue to work closely with [Reps. Johnson and Bowman] to advance the protections in this bill that ensure all artists can create freely without fear of their work being criminalized.”

Kevin Lilesthe chairman and CEO, 300 Elektra Entertainment, who testified passionately on the issue during Young Thug’s bond hearing last month, offered similar praise: “In addition to violating the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, this racially targeted practice punishes already marginalized communities and their stories of family, struggle, survival and triumph. Black creativity and artistry are being criminalized, and this bill will help end that. We must protect Black art.”

Read the entire legal text HERE.

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