Rappers own lyrics put them in jail
Young Thug and Gunna’s indictments this year have rallied executives, lawyers and artists to support legislation at the state and federal levels
That’s in part because of a controversial decision by prosecutors to cite Young Thug’s lyrics, music videos and social media posts as part of “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Young Thug lyrics like “I killed her man in front of her mommy” and other verses of songs by Nicki Minaj and other artists were suddenly used as evidence against the rapper, accused of racketeering for nearly a year. decade.
The targeting of rappers over their creative content has prompted other artists, recording executives and politicians to step up. On Monday, the California State Assembly unanimously passed a bill, AB 2799, that would prevent prosecutors from using a musician’s words against them as evidence in criminal or civil cases. (Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign the legislation as early as next week.) A similar bill failed in New York after being passed by that state’s Senate.
And many industry players are actively pushing for federal legislation, particularly the Restoring Artistic Protection Act — or RAP Act — which is currently making its way through the US Congress after being introduced last month. Many decry the legal system’s attack on Young Thug as well as other hip-hop artists nationwide as a struggle for artistic expression by young black men who have been unfairly targeted for their creative output.
“When we start criminalizing the First Amendment, you’re out of democracy, and democracy is already hanging by a thread,” said U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (DN.Y.), one of the sponsors of the RAP Act, to TheWrap, adding that he thinks the bill could pass the House by the end of the calendar year. “This is another attack on black men, this is another attack on black art, and we need to do everything we can to protect black art and also black free speech.”
In 2020, Bowman said, prosecutors in more than 500 criminal cases used artists’ lyrics as evidence against them — and virtually all of them were young black rappers. Cases involving rock or heavy metal lyrics were usually dismissed before going to trial, he added.
Earlier this year, the Drill Rap subgenre received increased attention when a prosecutor in the Bronx, New York, charged 20 people in what has been called “the Operation Drilly”. Louisiana rapper Mac Phillips, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2020 after prosecutors used songs like ‘Camouflaged Assassin’ against him, was released from prison 20 years later amid an outcry general aroused by his condemnation. And the London-born 21 Savage was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in 2020, leaving his immigration status in limbo even two years later.
Researchers have detected a bias in the way the work of hip-hop artists is perceived. Dina LaPolt, a veteran music and entertainment attorney who has represented numerous rappers, detailed a similar case in Maryland involving the use of a rapper’s lyrics as evidence which she called “obviously racist” and said he was setting a “dangerous precedent”. LaPolt then wrote a white paper titled “Rap Music and the American Justice System” showing the extent of these cases across the country.
In one study cited by LaPort, participants were given an identical set of song lyrics – but when told they were rap lyrics and not country/folk lyrics, they were likely to find the words violent and autobiographical. “People were shocked. And then when I broke down the country lyrics, they were really shocked,” LaPolt said. “And then they just started to take a hold. People started getting involved and saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is egregious. We have to do something about it.
LaPolt’s research has also begun to take root in the music industry, and she believes the urgency shown by those at the Recording Academy and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has lit the fire under lawmakers. to enable them to tackle the issue in just two years.
For decades, hip-hop artists have struggled with racist stereotypes that rap lyrics and music promote violence or that their art is a factual, literal extension of rappers’ lives and experiences. It’s a battle that dates back to the uproar over NWA’s 1988 song “F—the Police” or the 2 Live Crew albums that were banned from store shelves in the late 80s and early 90s. .
“I had to pinch myself and say, ‘Oh s—, here we go again.’ I’ve been in the company for decades, and I’m reliving things that I saw when I was young that are happening to me now, but I’ve never heard in the history of this company of ‘a RICO case brought against a label,” Kevin Liles, former president of Def Jam and founder and CEO of 300 Entertainment, told TheWrap. “It was hurtful, harmful, but it made me brace myself and say: “The job is not done. If I’m going to be in an industry that’s going to continue to be targeted, now that we have the #1 music in the world, I’m going to help build a policy to protect all artists, to to protect black art and to protect freedom of expression.
The RAP Act as well as state bills have received broad support from industry players like Liles and some of the biggest names in rap. Jay-Z and Meek Mill have both publicly defended New York legislation, Stacey Abrams recently expresses his concerns about anyone using the written word as a “point of evidence” in criminal cases. And labels like Universal Music Group, Warner Records and Atlantic Records have been particularly supportive of the federal RAP law.
In a letter to the California Senate last Thursday, RIAA Chairman and CEO Mitch Glazier noted that artists like Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury and even the Beatles sang about shooting “a man in Reno just to watch him die” or how “happiness is a hot gun” – but that their words should not be taken at face value and used against them in a criminal courtroom.
“Rooted in imagination, creative expression’s greatest ability is to take us out of the real world and introduce us to the unexpected, the improbable and the unthinkable. Hyperbolic and fantastical imagery are customary and often necessary elements of this creative expression,” Glazier wrote. “Yet when rap and hip-hop artists embrace this age-old tradition of pretending, their lyrics are too often – and unfairly – taken at face value, stripped of the poetic license given to other genres. While such a misinterpretation may occur uneventfully in everyday music consumption, its application in criminal proceedings can skew the truth and destroy artists’ lives.
Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said his organization’s lobbying arm was working directly with the federal bill’s other sponsor, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), to craft the bill’s language. legislation and rally support from industry stakeholders. And he added that it’s issues like this that are why the Academy and the money it receives from the annual Grammy Awards telecast exist in the first place.
“Not having this legislation has allowed people to use people’s creativity and words against them when we know it’s not right,” Mason said. “I don’t think anyone in the studio, when they’re in their car in their garage or when they’re writing music, shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Is this going to be something that I shouldn’t not say in art and music?’ We should be able to express ourselves.We should be able to say things that are in our minds and hearts or in our imagination without fear that someone will bring it up in a courtroom.
California State Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, the state’s AB 2799 sponsor, agreed there was a real “urgency” among industry professionals music, saying prosecutors’ use of the lyrics raised serious First Amendment concerns.
“The best thing we can do is have a serious conversation about creative expression, and really about the social fabric of what’s going on right now,” Jones-Sawyer said. “AB 2799 will give judges the guidance needed to assess whether creative expression is admissible in a criminal trial and provide a framework that will ensure that creative expression will not be used to trigger or reinforce stereotypes or activate racial biases. .”
Behind the scenes, however, LaPolt also set up a task force to document similar cases of people being convicted because of their song lyrics. If these bills become law, she and her colleagues should be able to mobilize the courts to overturn some of these convictions.
In the meantime, Young Thug and Gunna remain in jail awaiting trial. Liles, who testified on their behalf in June, said they were holding up well despite the very real toll of their detention, emotionally and financially. “Both are now away from their families and unable to generate income,” Liles said. “You can never normalize being in a cell or being away from your family life.”
In his moving testimony, Liles defended the character of Williams but also questioned why he had to testify to defend the good that hip-hop and Williams in particular did in the world, saying that when he founded the label YSL with Williams, they said, “We’re going to change lives, and that’s what he did.”
Even so, prosecutors haven’t backed down in their case against Young Thug, who has been charged with multiple crimes – including possession of drugs and illegal firearms, and rental of a vehicle used in a shooting in car that killed a suspected rival gang. member. During a hearing last week, the lead prosecutor called the rapper a “dangerous person…YSL is a dangerous gang, and he’s the man who runs that gang, and he’s dangerous.”
But Liles thinks Young Thug’s case is part of a long line of injustices in the United States
“We live in America. I don’t think this is a short-lived fight,” he said. “We need to look in the mirror as a country and ask ourselves why this continues to happen in the criminal justice system…I will stand on top of the mountain and believe exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. said. said: ‘We must allow the arc of justice to bend in the right direction. And at the moment it is not bent in the right way.