This week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed bill AB 2799 into effect. The so-called ‘Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act’ seeks to address the use of creative content (such as movies, television shows, fictional stories, and rap lyrics) as evidence in trials. Specifically, courts must weigh the “value of the evidence against the substantial danger of undue prejudice” moving forward.
This move comes after a recent BBC report which indicates how hip-hop and rap lyrics have played a part in legal prosecutions in the United States. According to the report, lyrics have been used as evidence in over 500 criminal cases over the past 20 years. Most recently in the RICO case brought against rappers Young Thug, Gunna, and other YSL Records affiliates. Prosecutors allege the record label is actually an organized crime syndicate, responsible for “75-80% of violent crime” in Atlanta, a claim they maintain through repeated citing of the rappers’ lyrics.
The bill declares courts “must consider specified factors…in determining whether creative expression evidence is more prejudicial than probative.”
Meek Mill, Killer Mike, Too $hort, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, E-40 and Tyga, as well as CEO of the Recording Academy Harvey Mason Jr and the bill’s sponsor Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), attended the virtual signing ceremony. The bill requires courts to prove that lyrics represent actual harm rather than artistic expression.
“This bill is an acknowledgment of systemic racism being involved. It was a huge thing for me,” Rapper X-Rated, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison using his own lyrics as evidence, says. “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.”
The extent of this bill is also a welcome surprise. Artistic expression is defined “as the expression or application of creativity or imagination in the production or arrangement of forms, sounds, words, movements, or symbols, including, but not limited to, music, dance, performance art, visual art, poetry, literature, film, and other such objects or media.” In a time when artists have to constantly remind audiences that the representation of certain attitudes and actions is not endorsement — a defense that artists of color have to make twice as loudly — this legal defense of free expression will hopefully lay the ground work for similar pieces of legislation, such as New York’s stalled Rap Music on Trial Bill or the Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act introduced to Congress earlier this summer by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia).