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‘Help Us Make This Happen’: Architect of California Rap Lyrics Law on the Fight Ahead

With a first-in-the-nation law to keep lyrics out of court a signature away, its chief sponsor talks next steps and why other states should follow California's lead.

Earlier this week, lawmakers in California’s state legislature gave final approval to a bill that would limit when prosecutors can use rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases – a hot button issue now that Young Thug and Gunna are facing the controversial tactic.

For decades, prosecutors across the country have cited rap lyrics as evidence to help charge and convict the artists who wrote them. Courts have largely upheld the practice, but critics and defense attorneys say it’s deeply unfair, swaying juries with irrelevant info that can tap into racial biases against black men.

At least in California, the tactic now appears to be on the way out. The bill that passed earlier this week, AB 2799, would ban lyrics or any other “creative expression” from the courtroom unless prosecutors can show that they are directly relevant to the facts of the case and won’t “inject racial bias into the proceedings.” The bill is now fully passed and awaiting signature by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

To understand more, Billboard sat down with Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the bill’s sponsor and chief architect, to talk about what the new statute would do, how it could be a template for the rest of the country, and why the music industry needs to “be alert to come to help us make this happen.”

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity).

This first-of-a-kind bill you spearheaded has passed both houses and is headed to the governor for his signature. What’s your reaction to this moment – what does this victory mean to you?

Creative expression is just so important. I know we’re talking about music here, but this bill also covers dance performance, visual arts, poetry, film and so on. So it has broader implications than just music. This is about the right to free speech under the First Amendment and just as important, especially to people of color, it’s about the right to have a fair trial, regardless of your profession or what you say in public. To have that used against you – it’s wrong. And this is important here in California, but if we’re able to get this done here, and the governor is able to sign it, it becomes the boilerplate, it becomes the template.

That’s an important aspect, because this bill only covers California – and cases like the indictment against Young Thug and Gunna are taking place in states all across the country. You mentioned this as a “template” – do you think other states will follow suit?

I know it sounds a little biased, but as California goes, so goes the rest of the country. We are famous for being the first to tackle the hard issues, we’re famous for having progressive ideas and rights and for pushing the envelope. So this is nothing different than anything we’ve ever done in California – this is what the state is famous for. There’s a litany of other laws that other states and the federal government have picked up because California started first.

How did you first come to learn about this issue? Academics, activists and defense attorneys have been raising alarm bells for years. Had you heard about rappers being prosecuted with their lyrics?

I was working with the Recording Academy on another issue, and while we were discussing that they mentioned that a particular rapper was being prosecuted because his lyrics, that they were using them as evidence, and it just seemed extremely unfair to do that. So the genesis of this idea was that, and thinking we need to level the playing field and prevent the biased use of creative expression.

As you say, the music industry has been tracking this issue for years. In May, top music executive Kevin Liles made an impassioned plea that hip-hop is “constantly on trial over what we are and who we are.” What would you say to the industry about the work that still needs to be done?

This should be very important to the industry, not only now but in the future. There was a time where there was this young fella named Elvis Presley who gyrated and had some controversial lyrics and was told he couldn’t do or say certain things. Then we went to rock and roll, which was supposed to be the damnation of the whole country and fall of human society. I came up in the 70s listening to funk, which my mother thought was another four-letter f-word. And now it’s rap music. Every generation, the reason that music advances was because in America we allow people to have that kind of free creative expression. If you don’t want to inhibit the next creative process, it is really important that the industry works with us to make sure bills like this get passed so that we can protect it.

One last question: AB-2799 passed both houses of the California legislature unanimously. I assume we’re expecting smooth sailing from here and for Gov. Newsom to sign it into law?

We haven’t received any negative questions, comments, concerns, or anything else from the governor’s office, just like we didn’t experience it in the legislature. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed. Obviously, prosecutors like to use this tactic in court cases, so they may come back and claim “the end of the world will happen if this bill goes through.” That sometimes happens – all of a sudden, you get protests at the last minute, trying to sabotage what you’re doing. We’re staying vigilant and preparing for anybody coming in to try to give us a headache about this. So I would tell the industry get ready and be alert to come to help us make this happen.