A collection of artists, music industry executives and legal experts are calling for limitations on how rap lyrics can be used in criminal trials in a new open letter.
Titled “Art on Trial: Protect Black Art,” the letter — which was drafted and published by Warner Music Group (WMG) and ran as a two-page ad in The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday (Nov. 1) — calls on prosecutors to “voluntarily end” the practice of using rap lyrics as evidence in their jurisdictions while asking both state and federal legislators to place restrictions on how those lyrics can be used against defendants.
Signatories to the letter include all three major labels — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group and Warner Music Group — along with companies including BMG, Live Nation, Spotify, TikTok, SiriusXM, Kobalt, AEG Presents and YouTube Music. Also signing on are bold-faced artists and songwriters from all different genres, including 2 Chainz, 50 Cent, Alicia Keys, Camila Cabello, Christina Aguilera, Coldplay, DJ Khaled, Drake, Future, J. Cole, Jack Harlow, John Legend, Killer Mike, Lil Baby, Mary J. Blige, Megan Thee Stallion, Morgan Wallen, Omar Apollo, Post Malone, Questlove, Roddy Ricch, T.I., Travis Scott and Ty Dolla $ign.
“Rappers are storytellers, creating entire worlds populated with complex characters who can play both hero and villain,” the letter reads. “But more than any other art form, rap lyres are essentially being used as confessions in an attempt to criminalize Black creativity and artistry.”
The letter goes on to cite the widely-publicized Atlanta RICO case against Young Thug, Gunna and members of their Young Stoner Life record label, in which prosecutors have backed up their central allegation — that the label is actually a criminal gang — by citing lyrics in the rappers’ songs. The two artists, both of whom have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, have remained in prison for months ahead of trial due to prosecutors’ warnings that they could engage in witness intimidation if released.
“The use of lyrics against artists in this way is un-American and simply wrong,” the Nov. 1 letter continues. “Beyond the obvious disregard for free speech and creative expression protected by the First Amendment, this racially targeted practice punishes already marginalized communities and their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph.”
The letter ends by praising California Gov. Gavin Newsom for signing a bill into law in September that limits the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials in the state. It also urges action on bills currently under consideration in New York and New Jersey, as well as the federal RAP (Restoring Artistic Protection) legislation introduced by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) in the U.S. House of Representatives in July.
According to a press release, experts have found over 500 cases involving rap as evidence in public records, though it notes that number does not account for indictment proceedings, juvenile cases or cases that end in a plea bargain. It goes on to cite a New York Times op-ed by journalist Jaeah Lee in which Lee claims she could find only four instances of non-rap lyrics being submitted as evidence since 1950, three of which were thrown out while the fourth was overturned post-conviction.
Additionally lending their names are organizations including the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Artist Rights Alliance, Black Music Action Coalition, Color of Change, Rap Coalition, the Recording Academy, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Songwriters of North America (SONA) as well as legal humanities scholars from universities including Columbia, Harvard, Howard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale.
The new letter continues the #ProtectBlackArt movement launched earlier this year by WMG’s 300 Elektra Entertainment chairman and CEO Kevin Liles and WMG’s Atlantic Music Group chairman and CEO Julie Greenwald via a petition on Change.org that has since racked up almost 65,000 signatures.
“For decades, a racial double-standard has been employed against Black and Brown hip-hop artists by turning their creative visions against them in courts of law. Enough is enough,” said Liles in a statement. “If prosecutors are unwilling to end this practice on their own, then laws need to be passed that end this flagrant abuse. On behalf of WMG, I want to thank the extraordinary group of people across our industry and the legal community who are joining us in this critical fight.”
Added Greenwald, “Throughout history, artists have created characters and forged narratives that reflect the culture around them. That freedom of expression is essential to the creative process and the role of art in society. The harsh reality is that Black artistic creativity is being threatened at an unprecedented level, and we must make every effort to stop this unethical, discriminatory approach to prosecution.”
You can read the full open letter here and below.