Decriminalizing Artistic Expression

“They ain’t gonna arrest Stephen King for his words,” said rapper Ice Cube. Recent prosecution of rappers Young Thug and Gunna have led to the revival of the discussion, can rap lyrics be used as substantial evidence in court?

Rappers Young Thug and Gunna were arrested in early May of 2022 on gang affiliation charges. Their songs “Anybody,” “Ski,” “Take It To Trial,” and “Slatty” are some of the tracks being used as evidence in their case. 

A few lyrics from these songs read “I killed his man in front of his mama, Like f**k lil’ bruh, sister and his cousin,” and “I never killed anybody, But I got somethin’ to do with that body.

It is believed by many that lyrics can be an indirect confession to crime, like in the case of McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr., Mac was just 22 and an up-and-comer in the rap industry when he was convicted of manslaughter. His lyrics were used against him in court, they read “Murder, murder, kill, kill” and “Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head.”

The entire jury in Mac’s trial was made up of white people, which generates questioning of racial bias, as the trend of using lyrics as evidence is seen largely within the rap industry. Lyrics are used to prove connections to violent crime, gang affiliations, murder etc.

Opposing arguments are that rap is a form of artistic expression, just like poetry, novels, and ballads, all of which don’t face similar repercussions that rappers do for discussing crime. Because of this justification it is of the popular opinion that rap lyrics should not be used as proof during conviction, as it isn’t a confession to crime or even solid proof of violence, but rather self expression.

Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has been the first to pass The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, restricting the use of rap lyrics as a form of evidence in court. Rappers Tyga, Meek Mill, Ty Dolla $ign, Killer Mike, Too $hort, E-40 and YG attended the virtual signing of the bill in support. 

Although California is the only state with this bill in place, it may act as a catalyst for other states. The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act marks a milestone for self expression and artists everywhere.