Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean and more have united to support a proposed New York state law that would limit prosecutors’ ability to use defendants’ rap lyrics as evidence of alleged crimes.
As Rolling Stone reports, the rap giants have added their names to a letter calling on lawmakers to pass Senate Bill S7527 – which was first revealed in November and which passed through the Senate Codes committee earlier this week – into state law. Others who have signed on to the letter include Fat Joe, Kelly Rowland and Killer Mike.
The bill, brought forward by Democrat senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey and assembly member Catalina Cruz, would limit a defendant’s music or other “creative expression” being shown to a jury in criminal trials, requiring prosecutors to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that that expression is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional”.
Highlighting the disparity between rap lyrics being used as evidence with other forms of expression, Hoylman provides two examples – no one, he says, believes Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die“, nor that David Byrne is a “psycho killer“.
“This is an issue that’s important to [Jay-Z, aka Sean Carter] and all the other artists that have come together to try to bring about this change. This is a long time coming,” Jay-Z’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, told Rolling Stone. “Mr. Carter is from New York, and if he can lend his name and his weight, that’s what he wants to do.”
Spiro co-wrote the letter that Jay and others signed with Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor who co-wrote the 2019 book Rap on Trial, which explored “the alarming use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence to convict and incarcerate young men of color”.
Back in 2015, Nielson and Killer Mike – real name Michael Render – co-wrote an essay for Vox in which they argued rap lyrics were being used as “admissions of guilt” in court, discussing the manslaughter conviction of hip-hop artist McKinley “Mac” Phipps.
“Rather than acknowledge rap music as a form of artistic expression, police and prosecutors argue that the lyrics should be interpreted literally – in the words of one prosecutor, as ‘autobiographical journals,’” reads Spiro and Nielson’s new letter.
“Even though the genre is rooted in a long tradition of storytelling that privileges figurative language, is steeped in hyperbole, and employs all of the same poetic devices we find in more traditional works of poetry.”
Fat Joe echoed the sentiment, describing rap lyrics as “a creative form of self-expression and entertainment” and questioning how they differed from any other genre of music. “We want our words to be recognized as art rather than being weaponized to get convictions in court.”
As Rolling Stone point out, the late Drakeo the Ruler is one rapper who was incarcerated after prosecutors used lyrics in his 2016 song ‘Flex Freestyle’ to convict him. Drakeo – real name Darrell Caldwell – spent three years in prison after being charged with the 2016 murder of a man outside a party in Carson, California.
Investigators in the case claimed that while Caldwell didn’t fire the shot, the incident stemmed from a beef between himself and rapper RJ. During his trial, prosecutors referenced lyrics on ‘Flex Freestyle’ to try and argue he and armed associates attended the party to specifically target RJ.
“I’m ridin’ around town with a Tommy gun and a Jag / And you can disregard the yelling, RJ tied up in the back,” Caldwell raps on the song. As it turns out, RJ wasn’t even at the party. After three years in jail, Caldwell was acquitted of murder after accepting a plea deal for a lesser sentence.
“Presuming a defendant’s guilt based solely on musical genre or creative expression is antithetical to our foundational rights and perpetuates the systemic racism that is embedded into the criminal justice system through discriminatory conflations of hip-hop and rap with criminality,” Senator Bailey said in a statement.