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 US 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 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.’” –
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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 alleged indictment 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 mentions 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 is 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.”
Additional comments can be found below; head here to read the full text of the bill.
“Songwriters of N. America fully supports and endorses the RAP Act, which prohibits the widespread prosecutorial tactic of using free speech and creative expression as evidence of criminal conduct. This tactic, rooted in systemic racism, is primarily used as a means to target creators of rap music who are often black men. The RAP Act is our chance at correcting the system and preserving the right to free speech and creative expression for all Americans” Dina LaPolt, Co-founder and Board Member, Songwriters of N. America (SONA)
“The Black Music Action Coalition support and applaud Congressmen Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman for this forward movement to right the systemic wrong of utilizing rap lyrics as evidence of crimes through the proposed RAP Act. Hip-Hop as a form of art is being critically endangered by this plague taking over our criminal justice system. Rap is undeniably the heart of not just popular music but American culture and deserves the same First Amendment protection as all other creative expression.” – Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, Co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC)
“History has taught us that taking an artist’s creative expression out of context is dangerous. The RAP Act prevents this and prohibits lyrics from being used against all artists in a court of law. The consistent practice by prosecutors of only introducing rap lyrics when artists of color are on trial is discriminatory and must be stopped. MAC applauds Reps. Johnson and Bowman for their efforts.” – Susan Genco, Board Member, Music Artist Coalition (MAC)
“I applaud Reps. Johnson and Bowman for introducing this bill to limit the admissibility of an artist’s creative or artistic expression as evidence against them in criminal cases. More than any other art form, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions of criminal wrongdoing. With troubling racial disparities already present in the criminal justice system, this practice only adds to the uneven scales of justice that Black men and women face.” – Julie Greenwald, Chairman & COO, Atlantic Records
“Today’s introduction of the RAP Act in the House of Representatives is a crucial step forward in the ongoing battle to stop the 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.” – Harvey Mason jr., CEO, Recording Academy and Rico Love, Chair, Recording Academy Black Music Collective
“As a union of artists and performers, SAG-AFTRA is charged with protecting creative expression and creative freedom which are essential to our culture and our country. Artists should never have to censor themselves for fear that their work will be turned against them in some future criminal proceeding. We support the Restoring Artist Protections “RAP” Act, and we thank Congressmen Johnson and Bowman for sponsoring this legislation to protect our members right to freedom of speech.” – SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland
“Today, too many artists, almost always hip-hop artists, face claims of wrongdoing which rely heavily on their lyrics as evidence. Beyond the disregard for free speech protected by the First Amendment, this racially targeted practice punishes already marginalized communities and their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph. Black creativity and artistry are being criminalized, and this bill will help end that. We must protect Black art.” – Kevin Liles, Chairman & CEO, 300 Elektra Entertainment
“Creative expression is fundamental to great music and storytelling. Musical lyrics are entertainment – like poetry or a film script. We command Chairman Johnson and Rep. Bowman for their leadership on this legislation.” – Dr. Menna Demessie, Executive Director of the Task Force for Meaningful Change and Senior Vice President, Universal Music Group
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