California Gov. Gavin Newsom Signs Bill Limiting Use of Rap Lyrics as Evidence in Criminal Cases

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Friday the state’s “rap lyrics” bill that would limit the admissibility of “creative content” as evidence in criminal or civil proceedings against an artist or musician in the state, meaning that rappers’ lyrics cannot be used against them as evidence.

AB 2799 — or The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act — is the first of its kind in the country and comes in response to rappers such as Young Thug, Gunna and many others who in recent months and years have been indicted and seen prosecutors controversially use lyrics from their music as evidence against them. The legislation follows a similar bill in New York that ultimately failed after passing the New York Senate, as well as the federal RAP Act that was introduced in Congress last month.

The music industry has thrown their weight behind AB 2799 specifically, with the major labels all endorsing it and with RIAA CEO and Chairman Mitch Glazier writing a letter to the California Assembly urging its passage. The bill ultimately passed unanimously.

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And Newsom’s office on Friday shared in a tweet that rappers such as YG, Killer Mike, Ty Dolla Sign, Tyga, Meek Mill, E-40 and Too Short all threw their weight behind the legislation.

AB 2799 is not expressly limited to rap lyrics and instead encompasses creative expression more broadly, which is defined in the bill as “forms, sounds, words, movements or symbols.” But the California bill invokes other social science research about racial bias and would require a judge when considering accepting something like lyrics as evidence to weigh the “probative value of that evidence against the substantial danger of undue prejudice.” It would also past testimony and instances in which creative expression was admitted as evidence.

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Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, who introduced the bill, told TheWrap ahead of its passage last week that AB 2799 “will give judges needed guidance for evaluating whether creative expression is admissible during a criminal trial and provides a framework which will ensure creative expression will not be used to trigger or reinforce stereotypes or activate racial bias.”

“Today we celebrate an important victory for music creators in the state of California,” Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said in a statement. “Silencing any genre or form of artistic expression is a violation against all music people. The history that’s been made in California today will help pave the way forward in the fight to protect creative freedom nationwide. We extend our gratitude to Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer for his leadership on this issue and to Governor Newsom for recognizing the importance of protecting artistry and signing the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act into law.”

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“Today we applaud Governor Newsom on this pivotal decision that will allow all creators to express themselves and follow their artistic vision without barriers of prejudice!” RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Glazier said in a statement. “The RIAA has been a vocal advocate for AB 2799 because all too often rap and hip-hop artists have suffered for the same kind of hyperbole and imagery other genres routinely use without consequence. With the signing of the California rap lyrics bill into law, voices that may have been stifled are now fully open to expression.”

As TheWrap has reported, rap lyrics on trial has been a major issue for music industry professionals, and research has shown the degree to which rap music in particular has been the subject of hundreds of instances of prosecution, while similar instances involving rock music or folk music for instance have been fewer and far between and have often been thrown out or dismissed in court.

Dina LaPolt, an entertainment attorney and co-founder of Songwriters of North America, has been one of the most vocal champions of the bill and of educating industry stakeholders about the trend of such prosecutions, also praised Gov. Newsom over the passage of the bill.

“For too long, prosecutors in California have used rap lyrics as a convenient way to inject racial bias and confusion into the criminal justice process,” LaPolt said in a statement. “This legislation sets up important guardrails that will help courts hold prosecutors accountable and prevent them from criminalizing Black and Brown artistic expression. Thank you, Gov. Newsom, for setting the standard. We hope Congress will pass similar legislation, as this is a nationwide problem.”

“The signing of AB 2799 (The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act) into California law is a huge victory for the artistic and creative community, and a big step in the right direction towards our federal legislation – The RAP Act (Restorating Artistic Protection Act) – preventing the use of lyrics as the sole basis to prosecute cases,” Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, co-founder and co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition, also said in a statement. “The Black Music Action Coalition applauds Governor Newsom for his willingness to stand with Artists and defend our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

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