California Restricts Use Of Rap Lyrics As Evidence In Court

Some people close to the hip-hop scene say this move will help decriminalize artistic expression and hopefully deemphasize lyrics about crime.

California Restricts Use Of Rap Lyrics As Evidence In Court

California prosecutors will no longer be able to use musical artists' lyrics in criminal trials against them unless they meet specific parameters.

It's a change with huge implications for racial equity. 

It's important to artists like Todd "Speech" Thomas, a rapper and member of the hip-hop group Arrested Development.

"As artists, we have the right creatively and maybe even the duty to color our stories, to make it more appealing and entertaining," he said. "I have a song 'People Everyday' where I express beating up a guy, and it takes three or four cops to pull me off of him. I don't want to be in court one day and someone tried to imply by me having that lyric, that I'm a violent person." 

The change comes against the backdrop of a case in Atlanta where rapper Young Thug is accused of gang activity and possessing various drugs with intent to distribute them. Prosecutors used some of his lyrics as probable cause to charge him with a crime.

"There's something back in the day, something from his life, that he pulls from to make these current hits," said hip-hop podcaster Mouse Jones. "That doesn't mean he's still doing it now." 

Jones is an influential voice in media and a popular voice in the hip-hop scene. To him, California's move is a good step, but it's not necessarily a hopeful one.

"James Baldwin said to be conscious and live in America is to be in a state of anger at all times," Jones said. "As a Black man, that's really how I feel. It's like no matter what happens you're kind of left to think about it from a, 'Eh, so what?' standpoint."

Why Are Rap Lyrics Being Used In Court?
Why Are Rap Lyrics Being Used In Court?

Why Are Rap Lyrics Being Used In Court?

As hip hop assumes its position as a cultural phenomenon, artists, lawmakers and law enforcers are faced with yet another dilemma.


To Speech, it's not just about decriminalizing artistic expression. He says this should also be a conversation about deemphasizing lyrics about crime in hip-hop music.

"The industries and corporations magnify these artists far more than they do the plethora of other artists that exist within hip-hop that are not talking about these things," Speech said.

Researchers have estimated about 500 cases over the last 30 years have used rap lyrics against their artists on trial. Erik Nielson is one of the researchers who published that figure.

"It really does reside in a centuries-long tradition of law enforcement, institutions of power in the United States, suppressing and then often punishing Black artistic expression," Nielson said.

Nielson wrote a whole book on this called "Rap on Trial." In an interview in June, he told Newsy it's racism that lends to the tendency to assume crimes described in hip-hop are more real than other genres — for instance, Johnny Cash describing shooting a man in Reno, Nevada.

"People have a difficult time believing — well, first, that rap music is music — but I think more to the point, that these young men are capable of producing complex and sophisticated art," Nielson said. "It's much easier for people to imagine that they're just chronicling their everyday activities."

The new California law requires judges to weigh whether lyrics are directly related to the specific crime on trial — a litmus test often not applied to White artists. 

"What other genre of music has constantly been on trial one way or another since its inception?" Jones said. 

"Let these human beings' art be just that," Speech said. "Let it be art."