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‘Stripped Of Poetic License’: RIAA Pushes California Lawmakers to Pass Rap Lyrics Law

The bill would restrict a controversial practice that's currently being used against Young Thug and Gunna in Atlanta.

The RIAA is urging California lawmakers to pass legislation that would heavily restrict when prosecutors can cite rap lyrics as evidence during a criminal case, saying that hip-hop should not be “stripped of the poetic license afforded other genres.”

After a similar bill failed to pass in New York earlier this year, California is close to passing AB 2799, which would effectively ban such lyrics unless prosecutors can show that they are directly relevant to the facts of the case. The bill passed the state Assembly in May and is now nearing a vote in the state Senate.

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RIAA chairman Mitch Glazer urged the bill’s passage in a Wednesday letter to Sen. Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, citing the many examples of rhetorical violence in music, like Bob Marley singing about “shooting the sheriff.”

“Creative expression’s greatest capacity is to lift us out of the real world and to present us with the unexpected, the unlikely, and the unthinkable,” Glazer said. “Hyperbole and fantastical imagery are customary, and often necessary, elements of that creative expression.”

“Yet, when rap and hip hop artists adhere to this time-honored tradition of make-believe, their lyrics are too often – and unfairly – taken literally, stripped of the poetic license afforded other genres,” he wrote. “While such mischaracterization may be uneventful in everyday music consumption, its application in criminal proceedings can skew the truth and destroy artists’ lives.”

The bill, which if passed would be the first of its kind, aims to rein in a practice that critics say offers little insight into an actual crime and can unfairly sway juries by playing to racial bias. Though long controversial, the issue has jumped back into the headlines a high-profile indictment of rappers Young Thug and Gunna that quoted heavily from their lyrics.

Last month, two Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a federal version, which would impose similar restrictions on federal prosecutors across the country. The New York bill passed the state Senate in May but failed to secure a vote in that state’s Assembly; it will be reintroduced next year.

Like the other rap lyric bills, AB 2799 would create a so-called presumption against the use of creative expression as evidence – meaning not an outright ban, but a hurdle for prosecutors to overcome. The law would require courts to hold that such evidence offers “minimal” value unless the state can show that the expression was created near in time to the crime; bears a level of similarity to the crime; or includes “factual details” about the crime are not otherwise publicly available.

But the California law has other provisions not present in the other bills, like an express requirement that judges to consider whether such evidence will “inject racial bias into the proceedings.” It also notably requires that courts consider testimony on the particular genre of expression being cited by prosecutors – a nod to the fact that experts say hip hop’s unique conventions are often weaponized when lyrics are cited in court.

The bill would also require courts to admit testimony about “experimental or social science research” showing that a particular genre “introduces racial bias into the proceedings.” Multiple empirical studies have shown that jurors view hip hop lyrics as more dangerous than those from other genres, even when they cover the exact same words.

A so-called third reading on AB 2799 – the final step before a floor vote under California parliamentary procedure – has been ordered but not yet scheduled.

Read the entire text of the bill here: