Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Kelly Rowland and Killer Mike are among the star names arguing for a change in New York law that would prevent rap lyrics from being used as evidence in criminal cases.
The vocalists, along with Fat Joe, Yo Gotti, Robin Thicke and others, have signed a letter urging New York State lawmakers to support the proposed change and uphold freedom of speech.
The legislation, entitled Rap Music on Trial, was first proposed in November by state senators Brad Hoylman and Jamaal Bailey to prevent prosecutors from quoting lyrics except in cases of "clear and convincing evidence" of a link between lyrics and a crime.
"The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in our federal and state constitutions," Bailey said at the time. "The inclusion of art as criminal evidence only serves to erode this fundamental right, and the use of rap and hip-hop lyrics in particular is emblematic of the systemic racism that permeates our criminal justice system." The legislation passed an initial phase in the state Senate earlier this week.
"This is a long way off," said Alex Spiro, Jay-Z's attorney who drafted the letter. In a speech to Rolling Stone, he said: "By changing the law here, you are doing very well for the issues that affect it, but you are also sending a message that progress is on the way. We expect it to be followed many places."
In 2019, prosecutors in a case with rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine said they intended to include lyrics and music that "provide context" and "relate to certain disputes". The rapper was also questioned about the lyrics to his hit Gummo while he was in court.
During the murder case against the late rapper Drakeo the Ruler, who was acquitted in 2019, prosecutors included texts from his number Flex Freestyle during the trial in an attempt to pinpoint guilt. Rapper Tay-K had an American hit in 2017 with The Race before being convicted of murder - and both the song and its video were used by prosecutors during his trial.
This practice is also used in the UK. Prosecutors in a murder case against drill rapper Unknown T tried to introduce his lyrics as evidence, even though this was blocked by a judge and the rapper was acquitted in 2020. Drill rapper Digga D, who has had nine Top 40 hits, got a criminal conduct order in 2018, the terms of which prevent him from using certain names, places and themes in his texts.
In a study of 30 appeals between 2005 and 2020, law professor Abenaa Owusu-Bempah at the London School of Economics found that "prosecutors can use texts and videos to tell a story about a dangerous rapper that reflects long-standing stereotypes about black men as criminals ". She said that "rap music is usually presented in court as 'bad character evidence'," but had also been used as direct evidence.