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California Bill Could Restrict the Use of Rap Lyrics in Court


A California bill that might restrict the usage of rap lyrics and other creative works as evidence in criminal proceedings has unanimously passed each the State Senate and Assembly, and will soon be signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The bill, introduced in February by Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat who represents South Los Angeles, comes amid national attention on the practice following the indictment of the Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna on gang-related charges. Prosecutors have drawn on the lads’s lyrics in making their case.

The California measure, nonetheless, would apply more broadly to any creative works, including other varieties of music, poetry, film, dance, performance art, visual art and novels.

“What you write could ultimately be used against you, and that would inhibit creative expression,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer said Wednesday in an interview. He noted that the bill ultimately boiled all the way down to an issue of First Amendment rights.

“That is America,” he said. “It’s best to have the opportunity to have that creativity.”

Mr. Newsom has until Sep. 30 to sign the bill into law. If he neither signs nor vetoes the bill by that date, the measure would routinely change into law. The law would then go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, Mr. Jones-Sawyer said.

When asked whether Mr. Newsom planned to sign the bill, his office said that it couldn’t comment on pending laws. “As will all measures that reach the governor’s desk, it should be evaluated on its merits,” it said.

Though the bill’s genesis is in stopping rap stars’ lyrics from being weaponized against them, the measure loosely defines “creative expression” to incorporate “forms, sounds, words, movements, or symbols.”

It could require a court to judge whether such works might be included as evidence by weighing their “probative value” within the case against the “substantial danger of undue prejudice” that may result from including them. The court should consider the likelihood that such works might be treated as “evidence of the defendant’s propensity for violence or criminal disposition, in addition to the likelihood that the evidence will inject racial bias into the proceedings,” the bill says.

“People were going to jail merely due to their appearance,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer said. “We weren’t attempting to get people off the hook. We’re just ensuring that biases, especially racial biases toward African Americans, weren’t used against them in a court of law.”

The bill would require that decisions concerning the evidence be made pretrial, out of the presence of a jury.

For a long time, prosecutors have used rappers’ lyrics against them at the same time as their music has change into mainstream, with critics and fans arguing that the artists must be given the identical freedom to explore violence of their work as were musicians like Johnny Money (did he really shoot a person in Reno just to observe him die?) or authors like Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote “American Psycho.”

In other cases, though lyrics weren’t used as evidence, they were discussed in front of the jury, which “poisoned the well” by allowing bias to enter the court, in accordance with Mr. Jones-Sawyer’s office. It also noted that while country music has a subgenre generally known as the “murder ballad,” it is just the lyrics of rap artists which were singled out.

Charis E. Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society on the University of California, Irvine, who has extensively researched the usage of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings, said that the best way prosecutors have used defendant-authored lyrics in court was unique to rap.

The practice, she said, essentially treated the lyrics as “nothing greater than autobiographical accounts — denying rap the status of art.” The California bill is important, Dr. Kubrin said, because it might require judges to contemplate whether the lyrics would inject racial bias into proceedings. “This is greater than rap,” she said.

Most recently, the fees against Young Thug and Gunna have called national attention to the tactic. Each men, who’ve said they’re innocent, were identified as members of a criminal street gang, a few of whom were charged with violent crimes including murder and attempted armed robbery.

Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, co-wrote the Grammy-winning “That is America” with Childish Gambino and is one of the vital influential artists to emerge from Atlanta’s hip-hop scene.

In November, two Latest York lawmakers introduced the same bill that might prevent lyrics from getting used as evidence in criminal cases unless there was a “factual nexus between the creative expression and the facts of the case.” It passed the Senate in May.

In July, U.S. Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of Latest York, each Democrats, introduced federal laws, the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, which they said would protect artists from “the wrongful use of their lyrics against them.”

The California bill is supported by several other music organizations and activist groups, including the Black Music Motion Coalition California, the Public Defenders Association and Smart Justice California, which advocates criminal justice reform.

In an announcement of support from June, the Black Music Motion Coalition, an advocacy organization that battles systemic racism within the music business, said that prosecutors almost exclusively weaponized rappers’ lyrics against men of color.

“Creative expression shouldn’t be used as evidence of bad character,” the organization said, maintaining that the claim that themes expressed in art were a sign of the likelihood that an individual was violent or dishonest was “simply false.”

Harvey Mason Jr., the chief executive of the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammy Awards, said that the bill was intended to guard not only rappers, but in addition artists across all genres of music, and other types of creativity.

“It’s larger than anybody individual case,” Mr. Mason said. “Under no circumstances, at no time, do I feel that somebody’s art must be used against them.”

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