California Senate and Assembly approve bill limiting use of rap lyrics as evidence in court

A similar bill was passed in the New York State Senate earlier this year, but did not pass the State Assembly

The California Senate and Assembly have approved a bill limiting the ability for lyrics to be used against rappers in court cases.

Bill AB 2799 is now awaiting the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom, who is expected to sign and confirm the bill as law.

As Billboard report, the bill would restrict the use of song lyrics as evidence, and be banned from being referenced in court unless the prosecution can prove a direct relevance between the lyrics and the particular case, and that the process will not “inject racial bias into the proceedings”.

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In a statement (via Pitchfork), the author of the bill, State Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, said: “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’.

“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 characterise 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.”

Young Thug in October 2021
Young Thug in October 2021. Credit: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Earlier this year, the New York State Senate passed a similar bill, but it later did not pass through the State Assembly.

The purpose of this bill, and the California version, is to set a new high bar compelling prosecutors to show “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant’s rap song, video, or other “creative expression” is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional”.

The passing of the California bill comes after YSL rappers Young Thug and Gunna were charged in Georgia, with a large amount of prosecutors’ case against them being taken from their song lyrics.

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Both rappers were named in a 28-person grand jury indictment and charged with conspiracy to violate the state of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

One of the most recent examples of rap lyrics being used in a criminal trial to paint a defendant as culpable was when the late Drakeo The Ruler was charged with murder in 2016. The LA rapper was acquitted, but the DA’s office re-filed charges over the same incident, meaning Drakeo remained in jail, eventually accepting a plea deal on lesser charges and being released with time served – after three years in custody.

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