Stars including Jay-Z call for end to use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence

Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Kelly Rowland and Killer Mike are among the star names arguing for a change in New York law that would prevent rap lyrics being used as evidence in criminal trials.

The vocalists, joined by Fat Joe, Yo Gotti, Robin Thicke and more, have signed a letter urging lawmakers in New York state to back the proposed change and uphold freedom of expression.

The legislation, titled Rap Music on Trial, was first proposed in November by state senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey, to prevent prosecutors from citing lyrics except in cases of “clear and convincing proof” of a link between lyrics and a crime.

“The right to free speech is enshrined in our federal and state constitutions,” Bailey said at the time. “The admission of art as criminal evidence only serves to erode this fundamental right, and the use of rap and hip-hop lyrics in particular is emblematic of the systemic racism that permeates our criminal justice system.” The legislation passed an initial stage in the state senate earlier this week.

“This is a long time coming,” said Alex Spiro, Jay-Z’s lawyer, who drafted the letter. Speaking to Rolling Stone, he said: “By changing the law here, you do a lot of good for the cases that it affects, but you also send a message that progress is coming. We expect it will be followed in a lot of places.”

In 2019, prosecutors in a case featuring rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine said they intended to include lyrics and music that “provide context” and “pertain to certain disputes”. The rapper was also questioned about lyrics to his hit Gummo while in court.

During the murder trial of late rapper Drakeo the Ruler, who was acquitted in 2019, prosecutors included lyrics from his track Flex Freestyle during proceedings in an attempt to appoint guilt. The rapper Tay-K had a 2017 US hit with The Race before being convicted for murder – and both the song and its video were used by prosecutors during his trial.

The practice is used in the UK, too. Prosecutors in a murder case against drill rapper Unknown T attempted to introduce his lyrics as evidence, though this was blocked by a judge, and the rapper was acquitted in 2020. Drill rapper Digga D, who has had nine Top 40 hits, was given a criminal behaviour order in 2018, the terms of which prevent him from using certain names, locations and themes in his lyrics.

In a study of 30 appeal judgments between 2005 and 2020, London School of Economics law professor Abenaa Owusu-Bempah found that “prosecutors can use lyrics and videos to tell a story of a dangerous rapper that reflects longstanding stereotypes about Black males as criminals”. She said that “rap music is usually presented in court as ‘bad character evidence’,” but had also been used as direct evidence.

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