Rap Act Aims to Protect Artists from Criminal Prosecution Based on Song Lyrics

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The RAP Act, a new bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Hank Johnson (GA-04) and Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), strives to protect artists, especially those who create hip-hop, from prosecutions because of questionable lyrics.

If passed, the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act) will protect artists from prosecutors being able to use their lyrics against them in criminal and civil proceedings.

The 2021 case of Bey-Cousin v. Powell cleverly announced the legislation noting: Freddy Mercury did not confess to having ‘just killed a man’ by putting ‘a gun against his head’ and ‘’pulling the trigger. Bob Marley did not confess to having shot a sheriff. And Johnny Cash did not confess to shooting ‘a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’”

The RAP Act would affect the Federal Rules of Evidence by adding an assumption “that would limit the admissibility of evidence of an artist’s creative or artistic expression against that artist in court.”

As previously published by Variety via a guest column written by noted music attorney Dina LaPolt, prosecuting musicians based on their lyrics is a dangerous practice that could end up a cookie-cutter way to standardize prosecuting rappers. In over 500 criminal cases, prosecutors have used artists’ lyrics as evidence against the defense. LaPolt said, “This is racism.”

Currently, Young Thug is testing the abilities of such prosecutorial policies and whether they infringe on the mega star’s First Amendment rights. In May, Young Thug and fellow Atlanta rapper Gunna were arrested on charges of gang activity and conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

In the indictment Williams allegedly stole weapons and methamphetamine, hydrocodone, and marijuana, with intent to distribute. He was also implicated in an attempted murder of Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci. He is accused of renting a car “used in the commission of the murder of Donovan Thomas, Jr., a rival gang member.”

The indictment detailed lyrics from nine Young Thug songs, including “Ski” and “Slime Shit.” Some excerpts from the 2019 song “Just How It Is” are listed, including “I done did the robbin’, I done did the jackin’, now I’m full rappin’” and “It’s all mob business, we know to kill the biggest cats of all kittens.”

The lyrics were deemed “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy,” by the court in the indictment. The 2021 song “Bad Boy,” was also mentioned by the court. The lyrics include messages like, “Smith & Wesson .45 put a hole in his heart / Better not play with me, killers they stay with me,” and, “I shot at his mommy, now he no longer mention me.”

“Freedom of speech is the constitutional foundation the framers thought necessary to enable a new and free society to craft not only its own destiny through commerce and innovations, but through culture, expression, and art,” said Rep. Johnson.

“It is no longer enough that the Bill of Rights guarantees that freedom: without further Congressional action, the freedom of speech and of artistic expression present in music will continue to be stifled, and that expression will be chilled until the voices behind that protected speech are silenced. I thank my colleague Congressman Bowman for joining me in co-leading this legislation.”

“Rap, hip-hop and every lyrical musical piece is a beautiful form of art and expression that must be protected,” said Congressman Jamaal Bowman Ed.D (NY-16). “I am proud to introduce the RAP Act alongside Rep. Hank Johnson. Our judicial system disparately criminalizes Black and brown lives, including Black and brown creativity.

For example, Tommy Munsdwell Canady is a young 17-year-old kid serving a life sentence whose conviction heavily relied upon lyrics he wrote. I was deeply moved to hear that Mr. Canady continues to pursue his art in the face of our carceral systems that would otherwise stifle Black art.

He is not an outlier. Evidence shows when juries believe lyrics to be rap lyrics; there’s a tendency to presume it’s a confession, whereas lyrics for other genres of music are understood to be art, not factual reporting.

This act would ensure that our evidentiary standards protect the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. We cannot imprison our talented artists for expressing their experiences, nor will we let their creativity be suppressed.”

Recording Academy (the GRAMMYs), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, Warner Records, Atlantic Records, Warner Music Nashville, Artists Rights Alliance, SAG-AFTRA, BMAC (Black Music Action Coalition), MAC (Music Artists Coalition), SONA (Song Writers of North America), 300 Elektra Entertainment, Warner Chappell Music, Warner Music Group and Warner Music Latina are groups that back the legislation that would protect artist like Young Thug.

Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. and Rico Love, chair of the Recording Academy Black Music Collective, remarked, following today’s Capitol Hill announcement: “Today’s introduction of the RAP Act in the House of Representatives is 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 end this unconstitutional practice.

We extend our gratitude to Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) for their leadership on this issue, and we will continue to work closely with them to advance the protections in this bill that ensure all artists can create freely without fear of their work being criminalized.”

“Songwriters of N. America fully supports and endorses the RAP Act, which prohibits the widespread prosecutorial tactic of using free speech and creative expression as evidence of criminal conduct. This tactic, rooted in systemic racism, is primarily used to target rap music creators who are often Black men.

The RAP Act is our chance at correcting the system and preserving the right to free speech and creative expression for all Americans” – Dina LaPolt, Co-founder and Board Member, Songwriters of N. America (SONA)

“The Black Music Action Coalition support and applaud Congressmen Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman for this forward movement to right the systemic wrong of utilizing rap lyrics as evidence of crimes through the proposed RAP Act.

Hip-Hop as a form of art is critically endangered by this plague taking over our criminal justice system. Rap is undeniably the heart of not just popular music but American culture. It deserves the same First Amendment protection as all other creative expression.” – Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, Co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC).

“History has taught us that taking an artist’s creative expression out of context is dangerous.  The RAP Act prevents this and prohibits lyrics from being used against all artists in a court of law.

The consistent practice by prosecutors of only introducing rap lyrics when artists of color are on trial is discriminatory and must be stopped. MAC applauds Reps. Johnson and Bowman for their efforts.” – Susan Genco, Board Member, Music Artist Coalition (MAC).

“I applaud Reps. Johnson and Bowman for introducing this bill to limit the admissibility of an artist’s creative or artistic expression as evidence against them in criminal cases. More than any other art form, prosecutors attempt to use rap lyrics as confessions of criminal wrongdoing.

With troubling racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this practice only adds to the uneven scales of justice that Black men and women face.” – Julie Greenwald, Chairman & COO, Atlantic Records.

“Today’s introduction of the RAP Act in the House of Representatives is 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 end this unconstitutional practice. We extend our gratitude to Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) for their leadership on this issue.

We will continue to work closely with them to advance the protections in this bill that ensure all artists can create freely without fear of their work being criminalized.” – Harvey Mason jr., CEO, Recording Academy and Rico Love, Chair, Recording Academy Black Music Collective.

“As a union of artists and performers, SAG-AFTRA is charged with protecting creative expression and creative freedom which are essential to our culture and our country.  Artists should never have to censor themselves for fear that their work will be turned against them in some future criminal proceeding. 

We support the Restoring Artist Protections “RAP” Act, and we thank Congressmen Johnson and Bowman for sponsoring this legislation to protect our members right to freedom of speech.” –  SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.

“Today, too many artists, almost always hip-hop artists, face allegations of wrongdoing which rely heavily on their lyrics as evidence. 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.” – Kevin Liles, Chairman & CEO, 300 Elektra Entertainment.

“Creative expression is fundamental to great music and storytelling. Musical lyrics are entertainment – like poetry or a film script. We commend Chairman Johnson and Rep. Bowman for their leadership on this legislation.” – Dr. Menna Demessie, Executive Director of the Task Force for Meaningful Change and Senior Vice President, Universal Music Group.



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