The New York State Senate passed a bill yesterday (May 17) limiting the use of song lyrics as evidence in court by prosecutors.
First touted last November, the purpose of this bill 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”.
Led by Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx), the bill – called ‘Rap Music On Trial’ and dubbed Senate Bill S7527 – has received support since the idea was raised from Jay-Z, Run The Jewels‘ Killer Mike, Meek Mill and more.
The bill will now aim to pass through the New York State Assembly in order to become a law.
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.
The indictment centres around the YSL record label and collective, allegedly formed by Thug – real name Jeffery Lamar Williams – in 2012, which authorities claim is a “criminal street gang”. Part of the indictment is based around Williams, Sergio Kitchens (aka Gunna) and other YSL associates’ lyrics and social media posts allegedly being “acts in furtherance of the conspiracy”.
Among those lyrics are a line from Williams and Kitchens’ collaboration ‘Slatty’, in which the latter raps: “I killed his man in front of his momma / Like fuck lil bruh, sister and his cousin.”
Gunna’s legal team have since responded, describing the RICO indictment as “intensely problematic”.
In their initial proposition of the bill, Hoylman argued that nobody thinks Johnny Cash actually “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, as depicted in the lyrics of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, or that David Byrne is a real “psycho killer”, but that rappers have repeatedly had their lyrics used against them in criminal cases.
He said this practice is “chilling to artistic expression” and “reveals a bias in some instances that denigrates certain forms of expression, like rap music”, adding that “there’s a social justice component to this that meets the moment”.
Bailey added: “There’s a glaring double standard that often happens when it comes to artists of colour. There’s a lyric by Jay-Z that always speaks to me: ‘Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me.’ It underlines the point that we don’t see this happening with movies. We don’t see this happening with other forms of creative expression. But we see it happening with hip-hop.”
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.