Music is considered by many an integral exercise of free speech, but rappers and other hip-hop artists being incriminated by their lyrical content is a surprisingly common occurrence. The argument being made by district attorneys in Maryland and elsewhere is that, although the First Amendment is among the most important rights in the Constitution, it hasn’t been applicable in these cases against hip-hop artists.
What the First Amendment doesn’t do is provide protection from prosecution when there is genuine evidence contained in a song’s lyrics. But not all judges are in agreement with whether or not they will ever admit song lyrics as evidence to prove the defendant guilty.
Some activists have compared having rap lyrics used against the artist in court as absurd as a suspense author having their novel presented as evidence against them. Due to the lack of diversity in judicial positions, rap isn’t something that’s as well understood as other genres and mediums, and the same goes for the juries.
Prosecutors take advantage of this unfamiliarity and leverage it as a way to easily win in court. According to advocates of this new legislation, it’s impossible to get a fair trial when the judge and jury don’t have the context and an understanding of hip-hop culture.
Whether or not to take the lyrics literally
Musical expression is a protected form of free speech, but prosecutors are still using rap lyrics as evidence to charge these musicians with criminal offenses. The new “Rap Music on Trial” bill may turn the tables on rap artist prosecution. This was passed by the New York Senate in late May 2022, and the goal of this bill is to give added protection to musical expression.
This legislation puts forth the new requirement of proof that the lyric in question should be taken literally and that the artist wasn’t describing a fictitious scenario. It’s a unique bill that hasn’t been done before, and it’s great news for some of the biggest names in hip-hop like Killer Mike, Jay-Z, and Fat Joe, who are only a handful of the many artists who have been accused of crimes in court that were entirely derived from their lyrical content.