Using song lyrics against rappers on trial may soon become a thing of the past in New York, as the birthplace of rap music and hip-hop culture could potentially be the first state to protect the First Amendment rights of rappers who often face having their creative licenses disregarded in courtrooms. That’s all if Senate Bill S7527, also known as “Rap Music on Trial,” introduced by Senators Brad Hoylman (D/WFP-Manhattan) and Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx), successfully becomes law.
Supported by some of the biggest names in music and social justice, like JAY-Z, Big Sean, Tinashe, Yo Gotti, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Alexander, among others, the legislation seeks to prohibit prosecutors from utilizing one’s art as evidence in criminal proceedings without “clear and convincing proof” of the art’s truthful and literal correlation to the facts of the case.
“In many cases, even the mere association with certain genres, like hip-hop and rap, leads to heightened scrutiny in the courtroom and is used to presume guilt, immorality and propensity for criminal activity,” Bailey said in a press release. “This bill will finally put an end to this grossly discriminatory practice by ensuring that there is a valid nexus between the speech sought to be admitted into evidence and the crime alleged.”
New York City is the place to start.
New York City, the state’s largest city and cultural hub across categories, is where rap was born. To the senators who introduced the bill and many of its supporters, NYC was a natural place to begin such an undertaking. Outside of its hip-hop roots, the city has long influenced the fabric of what’s cool and important in creativity. The artist-centered bill could very well be fashioned as yet another influencer from the city.
“New York is 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,” Alex Spiro, an attorney leading the charge, told Blavity. “So if we can get smart, interested folks and more media attention here, and you get people like Shawn Carter, then by its passage, I’m hoping that it is replicated elsewhere.”
This issue largely affects Black men.
Supporters of the bill, including Spiro, who also represents JAY-Z and Meek Mill, have made their voices clear that while criminal cases involving artists always have the propensity to use their art against them, the issue largely affects Black men in rap.
“There are enough ways in which this system is already implicitly biased against Black folks in this country and has rooted in its system, Draconian laws that have been imprinted into the law books for generations," Spiro said. "So, we are already starting off with an uneven playing field and troubling history in this country. I’m not so sure why to weaponize one more thing. And so if laws like this pass, we can turn our attention to the other things that corrupt the system.”
Spiro strongly asserts that another deal at hand is the violation of free speech.
“It implicates free speech or the First Amendment, and it implicates the criminal justice system, which is perhaps the most troubling function of our government in its hundreds of years of history,” he said. “And they’re converging here in a singular point to criminalize what we tell young people to do, which is, you know, ‘express yourselves, speak your mind, find art, find creativity, find ways to occupy your time that are not improper. Do that. That’s what we want you to do.’ And here we are having officers and prosecutors who have no connectivity to the very people they seek to police pouring over hours and hours of footage and trying to say to themselves, ‘well, look at what he just said — maybe there’s something to that.’
“The bottom line is before you prosecute and incarcerate a young person, I think you should try to walk a mile in their shoes. And you don’t need the person’s lyrics or their creative expression to try to hammer them home. It’s just not the right way for the system to work.”
Lyrics were their strongest evidence.
A book titled, Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, explores this concept in-depth, as well as highlights cases for which rappers have faced prison sentences based on their own words misconstrued in favor of the prosecution. Moreover, this issue has become a mainstream concern as artists such as Meek Mill, Snoop Dogg, Boosie Badazz and former No Limit rapper Mac Phipps, among others have famously had song lyrics used almost as character witnesses in their trials.
“Police and prosecutors present [rap lyrics] to juries as autobiography rhymed over a beat — often with devastating consequences,” Rap on Trial co-authors, Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis write in their book.
The co-authors also entertain the idea that judges could stand to be educated on rap and hip-hop culture, although Nielson does contend that it wouldn’t be enough.
“So [prosecutors] cherry-pick a lyric that says, ‘I’m a drug kingpin. I sell huge amounts, kilos of cocaine,’ but this is in a courtroom where they have a public defender — like they’re clearly not wealthy," Neilson told Blavity. "If it was just a misunderstanding or a lack of education [on the judge's/prosecutor’s part], I feel like we could educate. Unfortunately, it does feel more nefarious than that.”
In recent years, cases where artists, particularly rappers, have had their song lyrics used against them on trial, have been highlighted. Such was the case with Phipps, who served 21 years in a Louisiana prison for a murder that another man confessed to shortly after Phipps’ arrest. Disregarding the man’s confession to proceed with charges against Phipps, the rising star claims he overheard the prosecutor refer to his rap lyrics saying something like, “yo, I have all of his lyrics right here.”
A puzzling thing for Phipps is trying to understand how choosing to pursue music, something legal, could be used against him.
“I began rapping because it was where I expressed myself and I saw it as a way out of my condition, and it was what I did for fun. It was my therapy, it was all of those things, and to actually see that thing that I love so much that was legal — we’re not talking about anything illegal, this was legal — and to see it being weaponized and used against me was weird,” Phipps told Blavity. “It was appalling, and what was even more appalling was that it was improperly used against me.”
Phipps said lyrics from two combined songs were used to vilify him on trial.
“Two different songs were mischievously tied together to present what would appear to a jury as a unified message,” Phipps said. “How the DA was able to, unfortunately, successfully do it, was under the guise that rather than using it as actual evidence, he alluded to this idea that he was using it to establish my character. And under that guise, it was allowed to be used. I think it overwhelmingly prejudiced the jury against me in that way.”
Free speech is hindered when art is taken literally.
Phipps said that when he first began touring again, he was slightly nervous about performing certain songs.
“When I first went back on the No Limit tour, I was kind of reluctant to perform a particular song, actually ‘Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill,’ ‘cause that was the song that was actually used against me in court,” Phipps said. “But then what I decided to do was perform it and then share with the audience, how it was used against me in court and it kind of gave them a little, just a brief description as to how that song came about.”
The song is actually a military tribute.
“This was just a song that I made that was a tribute to a military cadence that I had heard as a combination between my dad talking to me about his Vietnam experience and other people I know that were in the military," he said. "So, the chorus of the song actually came from me making a military cadence that eventually was used against me in court. Something that I was doing as a tribute to the military.”
While Phipps contends he still believes in everyone’s right to free speech, he is worried when he hears songs that contain lyrics, someone might someday have them used against them. If given the opportunity to mentor a young rapper, he said he’d advise them to consider rewriting such lyrics or even making an obvious mention that they’re non-factual.
“I do believe in free speech. I do believe in the freedom of expression, but I would encourage the young man to really consider what he’s projecting out there, and I would give him the facts and use my case to show him that this can happen to you,” he said. “So even though it’s not right, and even though we have people like Erik [Nielson] and others who are advocates to fight against it, nevertheless in real-time, people are still being put in this position and it’s still being used against them.”
We all deserve to be treated equally.
While there are several ways for people to get behind the “Rap Music on Trial” legislation, Spiro’s strongest suggestion is to talk about it.
“I think when people see injustice, it matters, but again, it really does take refocusing people’s attention because we all have a lot going on,” Spiro said. “And we’re fed information constantly and it takes people pushing a singular issue like Erik [Nielson] does, like some of the rappers who’ve come together are doing, and then you’re changing a piece of the system that’s unfair. And you hope that that has tremors and effects throughout the system.
Spiro further asserted that the bill speaks to more than just rap lyrics on trial.
“It speaks to two fundamental issues that are supposed to be part of America, which are people of the freedom to speak and express themselves how they want,” he said. “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.”