ay-Z has signed an open letter with more than 50 artists and scholars supporting a proposal to stop prosecutors in New York from citing song lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. New York state senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey are leading the push to end the practice, which they say violates the right to free speech.
“The right to free speech is enshrined in our federal and state constitutions. 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.” — New York state senator Jamaal Bailey, who has proposed legislation to end the practice
The artists who have signed the letter include Jay-Z, Kelly Rowland, Killer Mike, Meek Mill and Fat Joe. They hope changing the law in New York will set a precedent for other jurisdictions.
“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”, said Jay-Z’s lawyer Alex Spiro.
Rap lyrics have been used in several recent high profile U.S. cases.
Tekashi 6ix9ine was questioned about whether the lyrics to his song ‘GUMMO’ included threats against rivals in the trial of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods in New York in 2019. Drakeo the Ruler was questioned about the lyrics to ‘Flex Freestyle’ while on trial for murder in California in 2019. And prosecutors in the Texas trial of Tay-K in 2019 used his song ‘The Race’, in which he boasts about violent crime and eluding law enforcement.
Treating rap lyrics as suggestive of actual criminal behaviour is not a new phenomenon.
Ice-T responded to controversy about his lyrics in the 1992 Body Count song ‘Cop Killer’ by saying: “If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” There is also a long history of claims that rap music incites violence. Tupac Shakur was sued in 1992 by the widow of a Texas police officer who claimed his lyrics had incited a teenager to kill her husband. The lawsuit was dismissed.
“The case law shows that lyrics and music videos are used almost exclusively against Black young men and boys…
This indicates a deliberate tactic, whereby prosecutors are able to draw on stereotypical narratives… Prosecutors can use lyrics and videos to tell a story of a dangerous rapper that reflects longstanding stereotypes about Black males as criminals.” — Professor Abenaa Owusu-Bempah of the London School of Economics in a study of rap lyrics in trials in the UK, where the practice is also common.