On Wednesday (Nov. 17), New York City lawmakers Sen. Bran Hoylman and Sen. Jamaal Baily introduced the “Rap Music on Trial” legislation to the Senate. The bill will ban prosecutors from using Hip-Hop artists’ lyrics against them in the courtroom, citing freedom of artistic expression and noting preconceived notions about the genre as a whole.
“Art is creative expression, not a blueprint of criminal plans,” expressed Hoylman in a statement.
At the center of the debate is Brooklyn rapper, Tekashi 6ix9ine, née Daniel Hernandez, who was sentenced to two years in prison for multiple counts of racketeering, firearms offenses, and drug trafficking almost two years ago. The Democrats argued that prosecutors used lyrics from the “GUMMO” rapper’s music to connect him with the street gang Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods.
“Yet we’ve seen prosecutors in New York and across the country try to use rap music lyrics as evidence in criminal cases, a practice upheld this year by a Maryland court,” Hoylman continued in a statement in reference to Hernandez and Lawrence Montague, a Maryland man who rapped an incriminating verse during a jail phone call with a friend while awaiting trial for murder and gun charges.
The verse included the following lyrics: “I’ll be playin’ the block b*tch/And if you ever play with me/ I’ll give you a dream, a couple shots snitch/It’s like hockey pucks the way I dish out this/It’s a .40 when that bi*ch goin’ hit up sh*t.” According to court documents, Montague’s friend cautioned him about some of the lyrics, to which the 27-year-old responded, “I’m gucci. It’s a rap. Fu*k can they do for—about a rap?”
The verse was used as evidence in Montague’s murder trial of Annapolis man George Forrester. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the deadly shooting and for the use of a firearm.
Similarly, back in August, 20-year-old Florida rapper SpotemGottem, née Nehemiah Harden, was wanted by Dallas police in connection with the murder of Reginald Agnew, Jr. outside an East Dallas nightclub in September 2020. According to authorities, SpotemGottem boasted about the death in his song, “Again,” which was released the same month as the murder.
If approved, the “Rap Music on Trial” bill would not ban lyrics in the courtroom entirely but it would require prosecutors to “affirmatively prove that the evidence is admissible by clear and convincing evidence.”
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects,” said Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who, like many other civil liberties advocates, believes song lyrics need to be considered protected free speech.
Of course, rappers are not the only artists whose lyrics include violent or criminal content. However, as a genre, Hip-Hop lyrics are most often used against Black or Latino artists, explained the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The admission of art as criminal evidence only serves to erode this fundamental right, and the use of rap and hip-hop lyrics in particular is emblematic of the systemic racism that permeates our criminal justice system,” said Sen. Bailey.