In a big win for creative expression, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed The Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act, which restricts the use of rap lyrics as evidence in court in California.

In August, the Calif. Senate and Assembly unanimously approved the bill, AB 2799. Speaking to the importance of the legislation at a virtual bill signing ceremony were rap artists Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Too $hort, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, E-40 and Tyga, as well as CEO of the Recording Academy Harvey Mason Jr. Leaders from the Black Music Action Coalition and Songwriters of North America also joined the signing ceremony.

In a press release, the Black Music Action Coalition called the bill a “crucial step in the right direction” of not injecting racial bias into court proceedings, especially given the recent indictment of Young Thug and Gunna, whose lyrics were directly quoted and used against them in an ongoing RICO trial.

“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,” said Dina LaPolt, entertainment attorney and co-founder of Songwriters of North America. “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.” 

Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, co-founder and co-chair of Black Music Action Coalition, added: “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. 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.”

Further advocating for legislation in the form of a Federal bill — the Restoring Artistic Protection or RAP Act, introduced in the House this summer — Rep. Hank Johnson (Georgia) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (New York) took the stage at the RIAA offices in Washington DC on Sept. 29 ahead of a panel discussion on “Rap and the Rules of Evidence.” Moderated by Variety executive editor Shirley Halperin, the panel featured Stiggers and LaPolt along with Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment, Prof. Jack Lerner of the University of Irvine School of Law and Attorney Shay Lawson, Esq., SONA Board member and outside counsel to BMAC, and advocacy chair of the Atlanta branch of the Recording Academy. The wide-ranging discussion addressed the dangers to the constitutional rights of free speech and to a fair trial. Liles, who testified on behalf of jailed rap artists Young Thug and Gunna during their bond hearings, connected what’s happening today to decades of systemic racism that disadvantages Black men.

Courtesy of RIAA

Speaking to Variety in May, LaPolt said the use of Young Thug’s lyrics as evidence against him in court is “unprecedented racism.” Legal expert Jack Lerner pointed out the judicial system’s hypocritical focus on hip-hop as a genre, and added that this process “could really affect the way people make music.”

Rep. Johnson credits LaPolt with bringing the matter to his attention. “I saw the possibilities of it, but I was unaware of the scope of the problem that then existed,” he tells Variety, referring to his first conversations with the attorney about her client 21 Savage. The Atlanta rapper, who was born in the U.K., was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2019, days after performing a song on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” that was critical of U.S. immigration policies. “We started talking about the need for some federal legislation,” Johnson continues, “and fast forward a few years and we get to actually drafting the RAP act and introducing it at a time when the Fulton County prosecutor was bringing charges against Young Thug and Gunna based, in part, on their lyrics. … I’ve always prided myself as a politician and elected official with having a sense of timing about things, and it just so happened that the time was now and this issue was ready to explode on the national scene.”

Read reactions to the new law below:

Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy: “Today we celebrate an important victory for music creators in the state of California. 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.”

Mitch Glazer, RIAA Chairman & CEO: “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! 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.”

Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin.