On Tuesday (May 17), New York State Senate passed a bill that limits prosecutors’ ability to use song lyrics and additional forms of “creative expression” as evidence in criminal cases. Senate Bill S7527, formally known as “Rap Music On Trial,” would not entirely ban prosecutors from presenting lyrics or similar material to a jury, but they’d be required to prove the “creative expression” in question is “literal, rather than figurative or fictional.”
Though the bill has been in the works for months, its passing comes on the heels of Young Thug, Gunna, and several other members of YSL (Young Stoner Life) facing RICO charges in Georgia. When they were hit with the 56-count indictment, much of the state’s presented evidence included lyrics and music videos in an attempt to prove criminal conspiracy.
No Limit rapper, McKinley “Mac” Phipps. was convicted of manslaughter in 2001 after prosecutors used his lyrics at trial to make their case. He was released in 2021 after serving 21 out of his 30-year sentence. Prosecutors were accused of intimidating five witnesses in the case in 2015, and, two years later, the lead prosecutor was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption and fraud.
In 2013’s Dawson v. Delaware, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to use protected speech as evidence, provided that speech is irrelevant to the case. Jamal Knox, a Pittsburgh rapper known under the moniker Mayhem Mal, was convicted on charges of terroristic threats and witness intimidation due to lyrics from a 2012 song called “F**k the Police.” He was convicted and sentenced to 2-6 years in prison in 2014. Chance The Rapper, Killer Mike, and Meek Mill filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Knox. The brief provided a “primer on rap music and hip-hop” and intricate breakdowns of the lyrics that allegedly sparked the terrorist charges.
The new bill and its additional legislation was introduced by Senators Jamaal Bailey and Brad Hoylman as well as assembly member Catalina Cruz. Alex Spiro, Jay-Z’s attorney, and Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond wrote a book on the subject. “This reform is urgently needed. This tactic effectively denies rap music the status of art and, in the process, gives prosecutors a dangerous advantage in the courtroom: by presenting rap lyrics as rhymed confessions of illegal behavior, they are often able to obtain convictions even when other evidence is lacking,” they wrote in the letter signed by Hov, Meek Mill, Big Sean, Raspody, Fat Joe, and others.
In order for a bill to become law, it must be passed by the New York State Assembly; that committee vote for the companion bill is currently pending.