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Grammys on the Hill culminates with push to limit use of lyrics in court

The RAP Act would limit the admissibility of song lyrics as evidence against artists

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol on the reintroduction of the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act), on Thursday. The legislation aims to “protect artists from the use of their lyrics against them as legal evidence in criminal and civil cases.”
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference outside the Capitol on the reintroduction of the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act), on Thursday. The legislation aims to “protect artists from the use of their lyrics against them as legal evidence in criminal and civil cases.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The music of Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy and contributions from myriad other artists helped inspire Jamaal Bowman to run for Congress.

The New York Democrat, standing in front of the Capitol in the House Triangle on Thursday, quoted lyrics from his favorite artists as lawmakers, musicians, producers and other creators gathered to reintroduce legislation aimed at protecting the creative freedoms of all artists, and rappers in particular. The measure would limit prosecutors from using rappers’ own words in their music against them when facing criminal or civil charges.

“If Rakim didn’t tell me ‘With knowledge of self there’s nothing I can’t solve,’ I never would have pursued knowledge of self which gave me the self esteem and self worth to be standing here before you today,” said Bowman, quoting lyrics from the Eric B. and Rakim classic “Move the Crowd” during a news conference alongside Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who reintroduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act (RAP Act).

“It’s not just rhythm and poetry. It’s foreshadowing. It’s personification. It’s literature. It’s compare and contrast. It’s education,” Bowman continued in his defense of the genre.

The RAP Act was first introduced by Johnson in the 117th Congress with 10 Democratic co-sponsors. The measure did not make it out of committee. 

The latest iteration has more than 20 co-sponsors, the pair said at the news conference, and would limit the admissibility of song lyrics as evidence against artists. It’s a practice that has increasingly been used against rappers in recent years in high-profile racketeering cases and it’s one that proponents of the measure argue infringes on creators’ First Amendment rights.

“This practice disproportionately affects rap artists,” said Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, the society of musicians that hosts the Grammy Awards. “But this act is absolutely not just about hip hop artists. It’s not even just about music creators. Silencing creative expression is a violation against all artists in all forms.”

Bowman, Johnson and Mason were joined by Rico Love, two-time Grammy nominee and chair of the Recording Academy’s Black Music Collective; Prophet, founder and co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition; Fran Drescher, president of the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Kevin Liles, chairman and CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment; and representatives from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

The news conference was the culmination of the two-day Grammys on the Hill, an event put on by the Recording Academy that brings together lawmakers and musicians, producers and music industry executives to recognize individuals who have fought for creators’ rights.

Wednesday evening, the Recording Academy hosted the Grammys on the Hill Awards, which honored 13-time Grammy winner Pharrell Williams, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

Schumer and Cassidy worked together on legislation included in the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package passed in December 2020 that made pandemic relief available to gig workers and small music businesses. Schumer also sponsored a resolution designating Aug. 11, 2021, as “Hip Hop Celebration Day” and the month of November 2021 as “Hip Hop History Month.” Cassidy was a co-sponsor on that resolution and, with Schumer, aided efforts to help 272 young musicians, faculty and staff from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

On Thursday, members of the Recording Academy and supporters of the bill were at the Capitol for a day of advocacy, which wrapped with the news conference.

Mason said there were hundreds of documented cases since the 1990s of prosecutors using lyrics as evidence in court proceedings against artists. The measure would ensure artists’ acts of expression aren’t weaponized against them. 

One such prosecutor is Fani T. Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, Ga., who has used lyrics controversially in recent years in a string of racketeering cases against well-known rappers, most notably one against Jeffery Williams, who performs under the moniker Young Thug, and YSL, the Atlanta-based rap crew he leads.

According to the case against YSL, the crew doubles as a rap label and a violent gang that carried out murders, shootings and carjackings over the course of roughly a decade. 

“People can continue to be angry about it,” Willis said at a 2022 news conference announcing the racketeering indictment against another alleged gang, known as Drug Rich. “I have some legal advice: Don’t confess to crime on rap lyrics if you do not want them used. Or at least get out of my county.”

But according to Drescher — who heads the labor union that represents roughly 160,000 actors, journalists, radio personalities, recording artists and more — the measure is about much more than music. It extends to protecting creative expression, civil rights and voters rights, all of which are being chipped away at, she said. 

“We have to be fully attuned to this because otherwise we become like the frog in the pot of water who realizes that he’s dead before he even jumps out of the pot,” Drescher said.

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