As Young Thug awaits trial, the push to limit the use of rap lyrics in court gains bipartisan support

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(NEW YORK) — The indictment of rapper Young Thug on gang-related charges in May 2022 sparked a movement in the music industry against the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings. Now as the hip-hop star awaits trial in Georgia, the issue is gaining bipartisan support from lawmakers across the country, who are introducing bills on the federal and state level to limit the controversial practice.

Missouri state Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a Republican sponsoring the bill in his state, told ABC News on Tuesday that using artistic expression in court proceedings could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and his bill is designed to regulate the practice and protect the First Amendment.

“For me, it’s about free speech,” he said.

“If you have a criminal system where your unrelated artistic creations can be brought against you as evidence to take away your life or liberty, that’s about as chilling an effect as you can get,” he added.

Rap lyrics have been used by prosecutors in the U.S. for decades as alleged evidence in criminal cases, but their inclusion in the indictment of Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug in Georgia brought national attention to the practice and sparked a movement across the music industry to “Protect Black Art.”

Recording Academy President Harvey Mason, Jr. told ABC News on Wednesday that using artistic expression in court is a “slippery slope” and sets a “dangerous precedent.” “Bills like this are opportunities to stand up,” Mason said, adding that legislation that limits the use of artistic expression in court will have “repercussions across all the creative areas” and will protect the “rights of creators” across genres and disciplines.

Missouri House Bill No. 353 or the Restoring Artistic Protect Act is known as the “Rap Act” and is named after the federal bill introduced in Congress last year.

Christofanelli said the bill got unanimous bipartisan support in committee and groups “across the ideological spectrum” testified in favor of the bill, including right-leaning organizations dedicated to protecting the First Amendment and progressive groups focused on “criminal justice reform and racial justice.”

The bill, which was included as an amendment to a Senate bill on judicial proceedings, passed the Missouri House on Tuesday and is expected to go up for a vote in the Senate before the legislative session ends on May 12.

“There’s a little bit for everybody to love in this issue, and I think that’s why it’s done pretty well, even in a very conservative state like Missouri and a liberal state like California,” Christofanelli said.

California became the first state to adopt a law limiting the use of lyrics in court when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law in Oct. 2022.

Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York reintroduced the The Rap Act on Capitol Hill last week – a bill that was first introduced last year and helped inspire legislation on the state level.

A similar bill in Louisiana sponsored by Republican Rep. and Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee passed in the House last week and is also expected to go up for a vote in the Senate this month.

In New York, Democratic Sens. Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey co-sponsored the “Rap on Trial” bill last year. The bill passed in the Senate, but never made it to the state assembly and is up for a Senate vote again this year. Similar bills have also been introduced in Maryland and Illinois.

The bills would essentially require prosecutors to prove to a judge without the presence of a jury, that the lyrics in question have a factual nexus to an alleged crime and were intended to be taken literally as a representation of the defendant’s true thoughts or statements.

“We want there to be a hearing before a judge outside of the jury’s presence to make sure that this type of evidence isn’t used to unfairly prejudice jurors against artist defendants,” Christofanelli said.

Although the legislation addresses all artistic genres, research outlined in the 2019 book “Rap on Trial” by Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis shows that the practice of using lyrics in court disproportionately impacts rap musicians.

“Rap music is the only fictional form — musical or otherwise, that is targeted this way in the courts,” Nielson previously told ABC News.

“It’s absolutely racist,” he added. “Essentially what’s happening is rap music is being denied the status of art.”

Mason said that the Recording Academy is deploying its members to states across the country to provide grassroots support and meet with lawmakers to advocate for the issue.

“This is exactly what the Academy is for,” Mason said.

“Anytime we can jump into action to protect or support or uplift our music community to enable them to do what they do, that’s what we are here for.”

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