Rap On Trial Bill Passes New York Senate, Carves Path For Systemic Change
The bill, introduced in November, is the first of its kind meant to protect the creative license of artists in courtrooms.
May 18, 2022 at 5:33 pm
A first-of-its-kind, rap-influenced piece of legislation has passed in the New York Senate. Senate Bill S7527, known as the Rap Music on Trial bill, soared through a May 17 Senate session with a 38-23 vote.
The bill, which has significant support from artists like Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Tinashe and Kelly Rowland, among others, still needs to pass the state assembly before it becomes law. Sponsored by New York Sens. Jamaal Bailey and Brad Hoylman, this bill seeks to amend state criminal procedure law to strictly limit the use of a defendant’s lyrics or other forms of creative expression as evidence or character assessments, as Blavity previously reported.
The historic passage sets a precedent for future bills.
This victory gives hope to legislative supporters, celebrity endorsers and criminal justice advocates alike, including Alex Spiro, an attorney leading the charge.
“We expect this to have a significant impact across the country,” Spiro told Blavity following the passage.
He previously told Blavity that New York felt like the right state to introduce the bill because of its rich history in hip-hop, but also because it’s more progressive than other states.
“New York is the birthplace [of rap] and the right place to start. And, you know, we have the so-called sort of liberal way of thinking about things and a progressive criminal justice system in New York compared to other parts of the country. It’s hard to think that, but we do by comparison,” Spiro said.
As for the bill itself, Spiro said he has hopes that it will be replicated in other parts of the country because it highlights the true value of free speech and creativity.
“It speaks to two fundamental issues that are supposed to be part of America, which are that people have the freedom to speak and express themselves how they want, and we should all be treated equally. We all have that human dignity — we all deserve to be treated equally. So if you believe in those two things, then you believe in this bill, that’s the bottom line,” he said.
It could have changed this rapper's life.
Former No Limit rapper Mac Phipps has been a champion of the Rap Music on Trial legislation, even from Louisiana, where no such bill has been introduced. His special interest in the passage of SB S7527 stems from his 2001 manslaughter conviction, for which he served 21 years of a 30-year prison sentence. Significant evidence points to him having been wrongfully convicted, according to NPR. However, without the use of core evidence in the case, the prosecution utilized Phipps’ lyrics as somewhat of a character witness to villainize him on trial.
“I can vividly remember the prosecutor came across to where I was sitting and he wanted to make a show. He wanted me to hear it. He said something to my lawyer. I can’t remember his exact words, but the gist of what he said was like, ‘Yo, I have all of his lyrics right here.’ Like, he had a folder with both of my albums in it. And he was like, ‘I’m ready for him to get on the stand — I’m ready for him to testify. I got him. I got enough things within the words of his song to get him.’ That’s basically what he told my lawyer,” Phipps recalled of his case to Blavity.
He was granted clemency in 2021 and has since been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform.
“Criminal cases should be tried on factual evidence not the creative expression of an artist, but unfortunately hip-hop has been held to a very different standard in the criminal justice system within the last three decades,” Phipps said in a press release. “The passage of the New York bill gives me hope that situations like the one that I faced will be prevented from happening to other artists in the future.”
This is a major step forward.
Author and professor Erik Nielson has long championed the absolute use of free speech and creative authority for artists. He co-authored the book Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, and has testified in cases where rap lyrics have been used as evidence.
“This first of its kind legislation will provide long-overdue protections for rap artists, whose lyrics are unjustly used against them in courts across the country,” Nielsen said in a press release.
He told Blavity that the bill’s passage is a major step forward.
“If nothing else, it demonstrates that Rap on Trial is a major problem in need of a solution,” Nielsen said. “This is important because another branch of government is weighing in. We just aren’t seeing the progress we’d hope for by working with, and trying to educate, actors within the criminal justice system alone. A statutory intervention, which will place the burden on prosecutors to demonstrate the relevance/probative value of rap as evidence, will hopefully limit the practice.”
While there is hope, Nielsen, who spent extensive time studying the topic, said he believes much more work is needed.
“This bill, even if passed by the assembly and signed by the governor, won’t end the practice entirely. It still allows for rap lyrics/videos to be introduced as evidence under certain circumstances, and it is state-specific. We still have 49 other states to contend with, as well as the federal government,” Neilson said.
Still, he is grateful to see progress.
“The New York senators who initially sponsored this have entered uncharted territory and deserve credit for understanding the potentially grave consequences of criminalizing creative expression, particularly that of young Black and Latino artists. We need other legislators to follow their lead.”
No date has been given on when SB S7527, now known as Assembly Bill A8681, will be heard by the New York Assembly.