Jay-Z, Meek Mill and other major musical artists are pressing New York lawmakers to pass legislation that would restrict when prosecutors can cite rap lyrics as evidence during criminal cases, saying such reform is “urgently needed.”
Also signed by Killer Mike, Fat Joe, Robin Thicke and a slew of others, the new letter urged lawmakers to support Senate Bill S7527, known as “Rap Music on Trial,” which would limit the admissibility of someone’s music as evidence against them in a criminal trial.
The bill, introduced in November, is part of a broader legal debate over when prosecutors can or should cite rap lyrics – a practice that critics say offers little insight into an actual crime and can unfairly sway juries, with a disproportionate impact on Black men.
“This reform is urgently needed,” wrote Alex Spiro, Jay-Z’s attorney, and Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond who wrote a book on the subject. “This tactic effectively denies rap music the status of art and, in the process, gives prosecutors a dangerous advantage in the courtroom: by presenting rap lyrics as rhymed confessions of illegal behavior, they are often able to obtain convictions even when other evidence is lacking.”
The legislation at issue, introduced by Senator Brad Hoylman, Senator Jamaal Bailey and assembly member Catalina Cruz, would limit the circumstances in which any form of “creative expression” can be shown as evidence of a crime to a jury. If passed, prosecutors could only present such material to jurors if they can show that an expressive work is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional.”
That distinction – between a literal recounting of a crime or a statement of intent, and a fictional narrative rooted in well-established genre conventions – is at the center of the debate over the practice.
“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,’” wrote Spiro and Nielson in the letter that was signed by Jay-Z and the other artists.
“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,” they wrote.
Though the proposed law will apply to any form of creative expression, the bill’s authors and proponents say that the use of lyrics of criminal cases has a disproportionate impact on rap music. Jay-Z’s letter cited a study that showed participants viewed violent rap lyrics as far more threatening than violent lyrics from a country song.
“No other fictional form, musical or otherwise, is (mis)used like this in courts,” Spiro and Nielson wrote. “And it should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of artists in these cases are young Black and Latino men.”
The bill passed a committee vote on Tuesday by an 8-4 vote, moving it one step closer to a vote by the full New York State Senate. A companion bill in the State Assembly is pending and awaiting a committee vote.