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Rap on Capitol Hill: Proposed Federal Law Would Ban Lyrics From Criminal Cases

A first-of-its-kind federal bill comes as Young Thug and Gunna sit in jail over charges that heavily cite their lyrics.

A proposed law introduced in Congress on Tuesday (July 27) would heavily restrict when federal prosecutors can cite rap lyrics as evidence during a criminal case, mirroring recent efforts in California and New York to limit the increasingly controversial practice.

Introduced by U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act) would sharply limit when any form of creative or artistic expression could be used as evidence against the person who created it.


“Our judicial system disparately criminalizes Black and brown lives, including Black and brown creativity,” Bowman said in a statement announcing the bill. “We cannot imprison our talented artists for expressing their experiences nor will we let their creativity be suppressed.”

The bill, the first of its kind at the federal level, aims to rein in a practice that critics say offers little insight into an actual crime and can unfairly sway juries, with a disproportionate impact on Black men. 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.

In technical terms, the RAP Act would make an accused defendant’s “creative or artistic expression” presumptively inadmissible in federal criminal cases. If prosecutors want to cite a song to help win a conviction, they would need to first show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant intended it to carry “a literal meaning,” that it directly applies to the crime at issue, that it’s relevant to a disputed issue, and that other evidence cannot be used instead.

That structure closely mirrors New York’s proposed Senate Bill S7527, known as “Rap Music on Trial,” and California’s Assembly Bill 2799, known as the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, which would both create similar presumptions against the use of creative works as evidence. The New York bill passed the state’s Senate in May but failed to secure a vote in the New York Assembly before the end of this year’s session; the California bill cleared committee and is currently awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

It’s unclear whether the new federal bill has any real chance of passage; such legislation often takes years of lobbying and multiple re-introductions to build enough momentum for passage. But the announcement quickly drew praise from many members of the music industry.

In a joint statement, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. and Rico Love, chair of the academy’s Black Music Collective, called the RAP Act “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,” they said. “We will continue to work closely with [Reps. Johnson and Bowman] to advance the protections in this bill that ensure all artists can create freely without fear of their work being criminalized.”

Kevin Liles, the chairman and CEO, 300 Elektra Entertainment who testified passionately about the issue during Young Thug’s bond hearing last month, offered similar praise: “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.”

Read the full text of the legislation HERE.