Music industry backs bill to limit use of rap lyrics in federal court amid Young Thug indictment

The bill targets a controversial practice used by prosecutors for decades.

July 28, 2022, 12:46 PM

Top music industry leaders, including the Recording Academy, are backing legislation introduced in Congress on Wednesday that would limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence by federal prosecutors in court proceedings.

The Restoring Artistic Protection Act -- the RAP Act -- which was co-sponsored by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), seeks to amend the federal rules of evidence "to limit the admissibility of ... a defendant's creative or artistic expression" in a criminal proceeding, according to the text of the bill.

Referencing the lyrics of hip-hop artists in criminal charges is not new and is a practice that has drawn criticism from both freedom-of-speech advocates and the musicians themselves, who argue that their style of music is not a documentary reflection of reality or the artists' state of mind.

The lawmakers behind the RAP Act said that when prosecutors cite rap songs or lyrics, it can sway jurors.

"Evidence shows when juries believe lyrics to be rap lyrics, there's a tendency to presume it's a confession, whereas lyrics for other genres of music are understood to be art, not factual reporting," Johnson said in a statement. "This act would ensure that our evidentiary standards protect the First Amendment right to freedom of expression."

While the law would not completely bar rap lyrics from being admitted as evidence, it would essentially require prosecutors to prove that the lyrics in question refer "to the specific facts of the crime alleged" and that "that defendant intended to adopt the literal meaning of the expression as the defendant's own thought or statement," according to the bill.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 17, 2021, file photo, rapper Young Thug performs at halftime during the Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks game, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
In this Nov. 17, 2021, file photo, rapper Young Thug performs at halftime during the Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks game, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images, FILE

The controversial practice was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this year when rap lyrics were used as part of the alleged evidence in a sweeping, 56-count grand jury indictment in Fulton County, Georgia, that led to the arrest of hip-hop stars Young Thug and Gunna on gang-related charges.

Young Thug, a Grammy-winning rapper whose legal name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams, was initially charged with one count of conspiring to violate the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and one count of participating in street gang activity, according to charging documents obtained by ABC News. He now also faces drugs and weapons charges after law enforcement searched his home following his arrest.

"Mr. Williams has committed no violation of law, whatsoever. We will fight this case ethically, legally and zealously. Mr. Williams will be cleared," Young Thug's attorney Brian Steel told ABC News.

Meanwhile, Grammy-nominated rapper Gunna was charged with one count of conspiring to violate the RICO Act.

"Mr. Sergio Kitchens, known as Gunna, is innocent. The indictment falsely portrays his music as part of criminal conspiracy," the rapper's attorneys, Steve Sadow and Don Samuel, told ABC News.

PHOTO: In this March 17, 2022, file photo, Gunna performs onstage at 'Samsung Galaxy + Billboard' during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Waterloo Park in Austin.
In this March 17, 2022, file photo, Gunna performs onstage at 'Samsung Galaxy + Billboard' during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Waterloo Park in Austin.
Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW, FILE

Although the scope of the indictment, which names 28 individuals, goes far beyond the lyrics, the use of rapper's lyrics as part of the alleged evidence was a sticking point for advocates and has drawn pushback from the music industry.

Top recording executives who backed the RAP Act launched a Change.org petition in June calling for the protection of Black art and legislation that addresses prosecutors' use of rap lyrics.

Among those speaking out is the company behind Young Thug's record label.

"Today in courtrooms across America, Black creativity and artistry is being criminalized," wrote 300 Entertainment CEO Kevin Liles. "With increasing and troubling frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions. This practice isn't just a violation of First Amendment protections for speech and creative expression. It punishes already marginalized communities and silences their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph."

Supporters of the RAP Act include the Recording Academy, the Recording Industry Association of America, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, Warner Records, Atlantic Records, Warner Music Group and the Black Music Action Coalition.

"The bias against rap music has been present in our judicial system for far too long, and it's time we put an end to this unconstitutional practice," Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. said in a statement.

Erik Nielson, the co-author of "Rap on Trial," has been focusing on this issue for years and has served as an expert witness or consultant in close to 100 cases across the country in which rap lyrics were cited in court.

"I am actually really encouraged to see this movement at the federal level," Nielson told ABC News on Thursday. "I'm not sure what the bill's prospects are but regardless, this kind of attention from federal legislators, I think, is going to do a lot to provide a lot of momentum."

The RAP Act is the first federal bill addressing the issue. But similar legislation -- which was named after Nielson's book -- was passed in the New York Senate earlier this year before it stalled in the state Assembly.

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