In what is positioned to address a growing issue for music artists, particularly in the hip-hop genre, a new bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Hank Johnson (GA-04) and Jamaal Bowman (NY-16). Titled the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act), it seeks to protect artists from the the use of their lyrics against them as evidence in criminal and civil proceedings.
As a release announcing the proposed legislation astutely notes referencing the 2021 case Bey-Cousin v. Powell: “Freddy Mercury did not confess to having ‘just killed a man’ by putting ‘a gun against his head’ and ‘’pulling the trigger. Bob Marley did not confess to having shot a sheriff. And Johnny Cash did not confess to shooting ‘a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’” –
Specifically, the RAP Act would impact the Federal Rules of Evidence by adding a presumption “that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court.”
As Variety has previously published, most recently by way of a guest column written by noted music attorney Dina LaPolt, normalization of such a practice sets a dangerous precedent, as the Congressmen detail that since 2020, prosecutors in over 500 criminal cases have used artists’ lyrics as evidence against the defense. LaPolt goes one step further. “This is racism,” she says.
Grammy-nominated artist Young Thug is perhaps the best-known rapper currently testing the constitutionality of such prosecutorial strategies, and whether they intrude on First Amendment protections. Thug was arrested in May on charges of gang activity and conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), along with fellow Atlanta rapper Gunna.
The indictment alleged that Williams possessed stolen weapons as well as methamphetamine, hydrocodone and marijuana, with intent to distribute. Williams was also implicated in an attempt to murder Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci, and accused of renting a car “used in the commission of the murder of Donovan Thomas, Jr., a rival gang member.”
The indictment cited lyrics from nine Young Thug songs, including “Ski” and “Slime Shit.” Several lyrics from the 2019 song “Just How It Is” are listed, including “I done did the robbin’, I done did the jackin’, now I’m full rappin’” and “It’s all mob business, we know to kill the biggest cats of all kittens,” which the court deems in the indictment “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Also noted by the court is the 2021 song “Bad Boy,” which includes lyrics like, “Smith & Wesson .45 put a hole in his heart / Better not play with me, killers they stay with me,” and, “I shot at his mommy, now he no longer mention me.”
“Freedom of speech is the constitutional foundation the framers thought necessary to enable a new and free society to craft not only its own destiny through commerce and innovations, but through culture, expression, and art,” said Rep. Johnson. “It is no longer enough that the Bill of Rights guarantees that freedom: without further Congressional action, the freedom of speech and of artistic expression present in music will continue to be stifled, and that expression will be chilled, until the voices behind that protected speech are silenced. I thank my colleague Congressman Bowman for joining me in co-leading this legislation.”
“Rap, hip-hop and every lyrical musical piece is a beautiful form of art and expression that must be protected,” said Congressman Jamaal Bowman Ed.D (NY-16). “I am proud to introduce the RAP Act alongside Rep. Hank Johnson. Our judicial system disparately criminalizes Black and brown lives, including Black and brown creativity. For example, Tommy Munsdwell Canady is a young 17-year-old kid serving a life sentence whose conviction heavily relied upon lyrics he wrote. I was deeply moved to hear that Mr. Canady continues to pursue his art in the face of our carceral systems that would otherwise stifle Black art. He is not an outlier. 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. This act would ensure that our evidentiary standards protect the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. We cannot imprison our talented artists for expressing their experiences nor will we let their creativity be suppressed.”
Supporting groups of the legislation include Recording Academy (the GRAMMYs), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, Warner Records, Atlantic Records, Warner Music Nashville, Artists Rights Alliance, SAG-AFTRA, BMAC (Black Music Action Coalition), MAC (Music Artists Coalition), SONA (Song Writers of North America), 300 Elektra Entertainment, Warner Chappell Music, Warner Music Group and Warner Music Latina.
Following today’s announcement out of Capitol Hill, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. and Rico Love, chair of the Recording Academy Black Music Collective, remarked: “Today’s introduction of the RAP Act in the House of Representatives is a crucial step forward in the ongoing battle to stop the weaponization of creative expression as a prosecution tactic. 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. We extend our gratitude to Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) for their leadership on this issue, and we will continue to work closely with them to advance the protections in this bill that ensure all artists can create freely without fear of their work being criminalized.”
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