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Bill signed by Newsom limits use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings

California lawmakers pass flurry of bills in closing days of 2022 session
California lawmakers pass flurry of bills in closing days of 2022 session 00:34

SACRAMENTO -- California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Friday that limits the use of rap lyrics in criminal court cases in the state.

The measure, also known as Assembly Bill 2799, requires "a court, in a criminal proceeding where a party seeks to admit as evidence a form of creative expression, to consider specified factors when balancing the probative value of that evidence against the substantial danger of undue prejudice."

The new law underscores a larger national conversation around prohibiting the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings, a tactic critics have called a racist double standard and an infringement on First Amendment rights.

Democratic US Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York proposed legislation in July that would ban lyrics from being used as evidence in legal claims though there has been no movement on the legislation in the House since its referral to the House Judiciary Committee.

"Artists of all kinds should be able to create without the fear of unfair and prejudicial prosecution," the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday. "California's culture and entertainment industry set trends around the world and it's fitting that our state is taking a nation-leading role to protect creative expression and ensure that artists are not criminalized under biased policies."

Under the new law, California courts must consider, if relevant and provided, testimony on the context of a genre of creative expression, "research demonstrating that the introduction of a particular type of expression introduces racial bias into the proceedings," as well as evidence rebutting those findings.

In addition to limiting the use of rap lyrics in California criminal court proceedings, the legislation, which passed unanimously in the California state Senate and Assembly, also encompasses the use of "performance art, visual art, poetry, literature, film, and other media." 

Rap artists Meek Mill, Too $hort, E-40, Killer Mike, YG, Ty Dolla $ign and Tyga were present in a video call with the California governor when he signed the legislation, according to Newsom's office.

Scholars Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis, authors of "Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America," have argued that "Rap music is the only fictional musical genre used this way because its primary producers are young Black men, who the criminal justice system happens to target." They say the genre's lyrics are vulnerable to being perceived as self-incriminating to law enforcement because of trends in first person narration and focuses on "criminal themes" and "violent imagery."

Calls from the music industry for legislation addressing the use of lyrics in criminal cases have grown in the wake of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) indictment of Grammy-award winning rapper Young Thug in Fulton County, Georgia, earlier this year. CNN previously reported that some of Young Thug's song lyrics were used as examples of "overt acts" in his indictment, some of which constitute racketeering.

"Today we celebrate an important victory for music creators in the state of California. Silencing any genre or form of artistic expression is a violation against all music people. The history that's been made in California today will help pave the way forward in the fight to protect creative freedom nationwide," Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in a statement on Friday.

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