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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Marcus D. Smith

Rap lyrics barred as evidence in California courts under new law meant to prevent jury bias

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Friday that bars prosecutors from using rap lyrics and other forms of creative art as evidence in court, a measure intended to prevent attorneys from creating bias against defendants.

The law by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, became known in the Capitol as the “rap lyrics” bill because of the long history of hip-hop artists facing scrutiny in court over their music.

Sacramento rap artists X-Raided and Lavish D each faced criminal trials in which prosecutors used their music to depict them as gang leaders. X-Raided spent 26 years prison after being convicted in the killing of a Meadowview community activist in 1994. Lavish D in 2015 was sentenced to six years in prison on gun charges.

X-Raided, whose given name is Anerae Brown, views the new law as an attempt to address biased policing against Black artists.

“This bill is an acknowledgment of systemic racism being involved,” he said in a recent interview. “It was a huge thing for me. Because he specifies the intent behind this is not just to protect artists’ rights but also to protect minorities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds from being persecuted and literally prosecuted as well.”

Jones-Sawyer wrote in the bill that using an artist’s work as a form of evidence creates “substantial danger of undue prejudice.”

“The intent of this Legislature…to recognize that the use of rap lyrics and other creative expression as circumstantial evidence of motive or intent is not a sufficient justification,” wrote Jones-Sawyer.

New York Senate passed a similar bill in May. It did not become law despite support from hip-hop artists Jay-Z, Meek Mill, among many others.

In August, Atlanta prosecutors announced they would use lyrics by rappers Young Thug and Gunna as they prosecute the artists on gang-related charges.

“You do not get to commit crimes in my county, and then get to decide to brag (about) it,” Fulton County District Attorney Fanni Willis said at a news conference on the case against Young Thug and Gunna.

For decades, rappers have been at the forefront of having their creative expressions used against them in court.

In 1996, prosecutors attempted to use lyrics from Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was the Case” song as evidence in a shooting case. Snoop was acquitted in the 1993 shooting death of Philip Woldemariam.

In the 1980s, police departments condemned rapper Ice-T and rap supergroup N.W.A for their songs against police brutality, “Cop Killer” and “F— the Police.” The artists view those songs as depictions of life in underserved Black communities.

In 2019, late rapper Drakeo faced prosecution as a Los Angeles district attorney argued the lyrics, videos, and collaborations in the rapper’s creative expressions were a conspiracy to crimes he was accused of committing. Drakeo was acquitted of the 2016 murder of Davion Gregory.

The law signed by Newsom means prosecutors cannot use an artists’ creative expressions in court, unless the art can be connected to a specific crime with substantial evidence or provide information otherwise not available to the public.

The new legislation goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023.


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