California Senate passes bill limiting use of rap lyrics in court amid Young Thug indictment

The bill would be the first of its kind to become law in the U.S.

August 23, 2022, 2:55 PM

The California state Senate passed a bill that would limit the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings -- a controversial and common practice by prosecutors that has garnered national attention amid the indictment in Georgia against rappers Young Thug and Gunna.

Bill AB 2799, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom after clearing the state assembly, would be the first legislation of its kind to be signed into law.

According to the bill, the legislation seeks to "ensure that the use of an accused person's creative expression will not be used to introduce stereotypes or activate bias against the defendant, nor as character or propensity evidence."

PHOTO: Young Thug performs during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals on Mar. 17, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Young Thug performs during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals on Mar. 17, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Amy E. Price/Getty Images

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 lyrics -- often with no factual connection to a case -- are not a true reflection of reality or the artists' state of mind and serve to prejudice a jury against a defendant.

The bill, which was sponsored by assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, would require a judge to determine the admissibility of the lyrics in question as evidence, and whether they are directly linked to an alleged crime.

"It would also recognize that the use of rap lyrics and other creative line expression as circumstantial evidence of motive or intent is not a sufficient justification to overcome substantial evidence that the introduction of rap lyrics creates a substantial risk of unfair prejudice," according to the text of the bill.

Similar legislation limiting the use of rap lyrics in court passed the New York state Senate earlier this year, but stalled in the state assembly. Lawmakers in Congress last month introduced the first federal legislation addressing this practice, garnering widespread support from the music industry.

PHOTO: Gunna performs at the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals on Mar. 17, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Gunna performs at the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals on Mar. 17, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
Amy E. Price/Getty Images

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.

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.

"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."

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, 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 six additional drugs and weapons charges after law enforcement searched his home following his arrest.

PHOTO: Rapper Young Thug performs at the 2021 REVOLT Summit on Nov. 13, 2021 in Atlanta.
Rapper Young Thug performs at the 2021 REVOLT Summit on Nov. 13, 2021 in Atlanta.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Young Thug and Gunna have pleaded not guilty.

"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.

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.

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

Both defendants were denied bond and their trials are set for January 2023.

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