A plethora of artists and music companies have signed an open letter calling on US law-makers to introduce new rules restricting the use of lyrics and other creative output as evidence in criminal cases in American courts.
Campaigners argue that allowing prosecutors to use a defendant’s creative output as evidence in court rarely offers anything of substance to the proceedings, but risks prejudicing a jury against the defendant. This disproportionally impacts rap artists, because there is tendency to assume rap lyrics are more rooted in reality than the lyrics in other genres, even though a rapper just as much as any other songwriter is likely presenting a heightened or entirely fictional world in their music.
There have been calls for some time for restrictions to be put in place on the use of creative output as evidence in the criminal courts, although the whole issue has become a bigger talking point this year following the arrest of rappers Young Thug and Gunna in Atlanta, Georgia. They and 26 others are accused of involvement in a gang that allegedly committed murders, shootings and carjackings. And the two rappers’ creative output is being used as key evidence by the prosecution.
That prompted the bosses of Warner Music divisions Atlantic Records and 300 Entertainment, which work with Young Thug and Gunna, to speak out. They stated earlier this year: “Weaponising creative expression against artists is obviously wrong. But what gets us so upset is what’s happening to Young Thug [and] Gunna … is just the most high-profile case. In courtrooms across America, black creativity and artistry is being criminalised. With increasing and troubling frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions, just like they’re doing in this case”.
New legal restrictions on the use of creative output as evidence in criminal cases have been proposed in a number of places, and were even recently passed in California. Similar formal proposals are on the table in New York State and on a US-wide level in Congress in Washington. The new open letter – published yesterday in the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution – calls for such restrictions to be put place US-wide as soon as possible.
The letter reads as follows…
In courtrooms across America, the trend of prosecutors using artists’ creative expression against them is happening with troubling frequency. Regardless of the medium – music, the visual arts, writing, television, film – fans implicitly understand that creative expression is rooted in what artists see and hear; it’s a reflection of the times we live in. The final work is a product of the artist’s vision and imagination.
Rappers are storytellers, creating entire worlds populated with complex characters who can play both hero and villain. But more than any other art form, rap lyrics are essentially being used as confessions in an attempt to criminalise black creativity and artistry.
For example, currently in Georgia’s Fulton County, numerous members of the Young Stoner Life record label, led by Grammy-winning artist Jeery Lamar Williams (aka Young Thug), are facing more than 50 allegations, including RICO charges that the label is a criminal gang.
The allegations rely heavily on the artists’ lyrics, which prosecutors claim are “overt evidence of conspiracy”. In the indictment, Fulton County prosecutors argue that lyrics like “I get all type of cash, I’m a general” are a confession of criminal intent.
The use of lyrics against artists in this way is un-American and simply wrong. Beyond the obvious disregard for free speech and creative expression protected by the First Amendment, this racially targeted practice punishes already marginalised communities and their stories of family, struggle, survival, and triumph.
We urge prosecutors to voluntarily end this practice in their jurisdictions. In the meantime, we encourage legislators at the state and federal level to explicitly limit how creative expression can be used against defendants on trial.
There are already signs of hope across America. We applaud Governor Newsom for recently signing a bill into law in California, and we urge action on bills currently under consideration in New York and New Jersey, as well as the RAP (Restoring Artistic Protection) Act legislation introduced by Rep Hank Johnson and Rep Jamaal Bowman in the US Congress. The work is far from done, and we must all join together to defend creative freedom and expression.
The letter is endorsed by all three majors, Live Nation, AEG, BMG, Kobalt, the streaming services, numerous music industry organisations and many more music companies, plus artists including Alicia Keys, Big Sean, Camila Cabello, Drake, Jack Harlow, Killer Mike, Mary J Blige, Megan Thee Stallion, Post Malone, Travis Scott and many many more. You can see the full list here.
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