What a California rap lyrics bill says about anti-Blackness

The first time Erik Nielson testified in the trial of an aspiring rapper was in Ventura County nearly a decade ago.

An Ojai Valley teenager named Alex Medina had been charged as an adult with first-degree murder with gang enhancements over a stabbing at a house party. In hopes of a conviction, prosecutors had introduced some of Medina’s song lyrics as a key part of their evidence, arguing that the words should not be treated as creative utterances but as “diaries” of his real-life “gangsta” behavior.

It was up to Nielson, then an obscure Virginia academic who grew up as “one of those white suburban kids who loved rap music,” to push back.

“Rap lyrics,” he testified at the time, “are so unreliable that it’s very difficult to figure out what might and might not be real.”

Obvious, right?

Well, Medina was sentenced anyway. And in the years since, dozens of other rappers across the country have also had their lyrics used against them, with prosecutors and police officers sifting through old songs and videos in search of supposed evidence of gang activity.

Throughout all of this, many in the upper echelons of the record industry have said and done nothing, apparently preferring to pretend that black and latino men aren’t thrown in jail for making music.

That is, until now.

Awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature is Assembly Bill 2799, which would make California the first state to restrict how forms of creative expression, from music to books, can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings. The state parliament passed it unanimously.

Rep. Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the Los Angeles Democrat who wrote AB 2799, said he didn’t know how many people of color, especially black people, were being prosecuted for their writing before the record industry got to him. And then he was horrified.

“You were the first to really enlighten me,” Jones-Sawyer admitted.

Nielson isn’t surprised at all. The recording industry now has a reason to talk about such things, especially with state and federal legislators.

Two of rap’s biggest stars, platinum-selling rapper Young Thug and his chart-topping protégé Gunna, face gangster fraud charges in Georgia using their lyrics and music videos as evidence. Both have been in prison for months.

“For years we’ve wished for more support from the record industry, but only when it clearly matters to the bottom line,” Nielson regretted. “Someone like Young Thug made it happen because that’s typically a practice that caters to aspiring artists and amateurs, not someone of their profile or resources.”

Many people will remember the pearl that hung over NWA’s “F—Tha Police” and almost every 2 Live Crew album in the 1980s.

Gen Xers in particular – and millennials who wished they were Gen Xers after the last Super Bowl halftime show – will remember when a prosecutor strangely referenced lyrics from “Murder Was the Case” during the 1993 murder trial of Snoop Dogg. referred.

“Murder is the crime they committed,” said then-Deputy Dist. atty Robert Grace told the jury gravely.

Well, things have gotten way beyond pearl grabbing and the weird.

Since testifying in Ventura County, Nielson says he has worked on about 100 cases involving the use of song lyrics as evidence in criminal trials, including 15 that he expects to bring to trial in the near future.

The associate professor at the University of Richmond has become a national advisor. In all, he and fellow researcher Andrea L. Dennis have identified more than 500 such cases in the books since 1991.

“I can safely say that my workload has increased exponentially,” he told me.

As prosecutors prosecuted the late Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler and focused on his lyrics, it was Nielson who linked his family to defense attorney John Hamasaki. And it was Hamasaki who managed to secure a plea deal with a lesser charge and secured his release.

It was just the latest in a string of cases in which he represented rappers.

The first was in 2014, when Hamasaki was the attorney for Laz Tha Boy, a Bay Area rapper who had been charged in two gang-related shootings, though the primary evidence of his gang affiliations was lyrics and rap videos.

Drakeo the Ruler performs during the Rolling Loud music festival in San Bernardino.

Drakeo the Ruler performs at Rolling Loud in San Bernardino in December. The late South LA rapper’s lyrics were used against him by prosecutors in a case.

(Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

“It pollutes a case. It brings in more otherwise objectionable information,” said Hamasaki, who is now running for district attorney of San Francisco. “The biggest problem is taking an artistic outlet and using it to criminalize someone and not recognizing that, hey, just because someone talks about having a gun doesn’t mean they have a gun and shot.”

But there’s an obvious reason why so many prosecutors refuse to separate fictional storytelling from real-world facts. That’s because the shameless tactic too often works with juries.

Nielson can cite instances of rap lyrics where convictions were issued in the absence of other credible evidence.

In a study conducted in the 1990s, researchers presented violent lyrics from a country song to two groups of people. The first group were told they came from a rap song. The second group was told that the lyrics were from a country song.

“The group that thought this was a rap song felt it sounded far more menacing and in need of regulation than the same lyrics that were characterized as country,” Nielson said. “This study was actually duplicated in 2016. Same results.”

That’s significant, since since the early days of the NWA, rap has grown into a hugely profitable genre of music said to be loved, accepted, and celebrated by Americans of all races and ethnicities. Rap may be mainstream, but juries guided by prosecutors are proving racism is, too.

Therefore, it is incredibly important for Newsom to legally sign AB 2799. It will force prosecutors in California to meet new requirements, such as proving in a pre-trial hearing how relevant a particular song or film is to the case at hand.

As Jones-Sawyer told me, “The justice system must be fair.”

For that reason, it’s also important that lawmakers in New York pass a now-stalled law that would “prohibit prosecutors from using creative expression as criminal evidence against a person without clear and compelling evidence that.” there is a literal, factual connection”.

Nielson was heavily involved in this effort, much of which grew out of a policy proposal in his 2018 book Rap on Trial. In January, a constellation of rap stars including Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, Big Sean and Killer Mike co-signed a letter with him encouraging lawmakers to adopt him.

There is some concern that the New York legislation – also supported by the record industry – is stricter than California’s AB 2799, particularly since the latter is identical to the legislation Congress is considering. Still, this is a case where something is better than nothing.

“I think there was a certain pride that New York, the home of hip-hop, would also be the first state to pass those protections,” Nielson said. “And now that California has stolen some of their thunder, I hope there’s some sense that this isn’t really a radical proposition.”

This is the kind of East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry we need.

Not just for the Young Thugs and the Gunnas, the rappers who made it. It’s for the rappers who didn’t.

Keep that in mind when you hear about the Los Angeles and San Francisco chapters of the Recording Academy urging Newsom to sign AB 2799 to allow “all artists to express themselves freely and without fear of reprisals” from the criminal justice system.

Not just the ones making millions of dollars for the record industry.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-28/california-rap-lyrics-bill-evidence-criminal-court-recording-industry-young-thug What a California rap lyrics bill says about anti-Blackness

Sarah Ridley

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