Megan Thee Stallion, Coldplay and Future are among a group of artists and music industry figures calling for restrictions on the use of rap lyrics as criminal evidence in US court.
A new open letter titled Art on Trial: Protect Black Art includes signatories such as Post Malone, Alicia Keys and 50 Cent, alongside the three major record labels, Warner, Sony and Universal, and companies such as Spotify, TikTok and YouTube Music.
The letter, which was written and published by Warner and published on 1 November in the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asks prosecutors to end the “racially targeted” practice of using rap evidence in trials, and for legislators at the state and federal level to limit how such work can be used against defendants.
“In courtrooms across America, the trend of prosecutors using artists’ creative expression against them is happening with troubling frequency … Rappers are storytellers, creating entire worlds populated with complex characters who can play both hero and villain. But more than any other art form, rap lyrics are essentially being used as confessions in an attempt to criminalise Black creativity and artistry.”
The letter draws on allegations facing Jeffery Lamar Williams (AKA Young Thug) and other members of his Young Stoner Life record label. In May, the rapper’s lyrics were mentioned in an indictment for suspicion of gang involvement and other offences, as they allegedly constituted “an overt act in furtherance of this conspiracy”. Lyrics by label mate Gunna were accused of the same offence.
Both artists have pleaded not guilty and remain in prison ahead of their trials. Prosecutors have warned that they could engage in witness intimidation if released.
“The use of lyrics against artists in this way is un-American and simply wrong,” the letter continues, referring to the “obvious disregard” for free speech and creative expression protected by the first amendment, as well as the capacity to further punish marginalised communities and their stories.
Further signatories include 2 Chainz, Christina Aguilera, Travis Scott, John Legend, Killer Mike and Mary J Blige.
Musicians such as Jay-Z, Kelly Rowland and Meek Mill argued for the prevention of rap lyrics being used as evidence in criminal trials in January.
The proposed change to legislation in the New York state was first suggested in November last year by state senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey, who strived to stop prosecutors from using the practice except in cases of “clear and convincing proof” of a link between lyrics and a crime.
The practice has previously been limited in California by governor Gavin Newsom.
The citing of rap lyrics in the courtroom is similarly controversial in the UK. Prosecutors in a murder case against drill rapper Unknown T attempted to use his lyrics as evidence: this was blocked by a judge and the rapper was acquitted in 2020. Drill rapper Digga D, who has had nine Top 40 hits, was given a criminal behaviour order in 2018, the terms of which prevent him from using certain names, locations and themes in his lyrics.