What a California rap lyrics invoice says about anti-Blackness

The primary time Erik Nielson testified within the trial of an aspiring rapper, it was practically a decade in the past in Ventura County.

An Ojai Valley teen named Alex Medina had been charged with first-degree homicide as an grownup with gang enhancements over a stabbing at a home celebration. In hopes of successful a conviction, prosecutors had launched a few of Medina’s lyrics as a key a part of their proof, arguing that the phrases ought to be handled not at as artistic expressions, however as “journals” of his real-life “gangsta” habits.

It was as much as Nielson, then an unknown tutorial knowledgeable from Virginia who grew up as “one of those suburban white kids who loved rap music,” to push again.

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

Apparent, proper?

Properly, Medina bought convicted anyway. And within the years since then, dozens of different rappers all around the nation have had their lyrics used in opposition to them, too, with prosecutors and cops mining outdated songs and movies seeking supposed proof of gang exercise.

By means of all of it, many within the higher echelons of the recording trade have stated and executed nothing, apparently preferring to fake that Black and Latino males aren’t getting thrown in jail for making music.

That’s, till now.

Awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature is Meeting Invoice 2799, which might make California the primary state to limit how types of artistic expression, from music to books, can be utilized as proof in legal proceedings. The state Legislature handed it unanimously.

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored AB 2799, stated he was unaware what number of males of coloration, significantly Black males, have been being prosecuted with their lyrics earlier than the recording trade approached him. After which he was appalled.

“They were the first ones to really kind of enlighten me,” Jones-Sawyer confessed.

Nielson isn’t in any respect shocked. The recording trade has a cause to speak about such issues now, significantly with lawmakers on the state and federal ranges.

Two of rap’s greatest stars, platinum-selling rapper Younger Thug and his chart-topping protege Gunna, are going through gang-related racketeering prices in Georgia, with their lyrics and music movies getting used as proof. Each have been in jail for months.

“We’ve wanted to see more advocacy from the recording industry for years, but it’s only once it’s clearly going to hit the bottom line,” Nielson lamented. “Somebody like Young Thug made it real because this is normally a practice that targets aspiring artists and amateurs, not somebody with his profile or his resources.”

Many individuals will keep in mind the pearl clutching over N.W.A‘s “F— Tha Police” in the 1980s and over just about every album put out by 2 Live Crew.

Gen Xers, in particular — and millennials who wish they were Gen Xers after the last Super Bowl halftime show — will remember when a prosecutor weirdly referenced lyrics from “Murder Was the Case” during Snoop Dogg’s 1993 homicide trial.

“Murder is the crime they committed,” then-Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Grace informed jurors with a straight face.

Properly, issues have gone method past pearl clutching and peculiar.

Since testifying in Ventura County, Nielson says he has labored on roughly 100 circumstances during which lyrics have been used as proof in legal proceedings, together with 15 that he expects to go to courtroom within the close to future.

The affiliate professor on the College of Richmond has develop into the go-to nationwide guide. All informed, he and fellow researcher Andrea L. Dennis have recognized greater than 500 such circumstances on the books since 1991.

“I can certainly say my workload has increased exponentially,” he informed me.

When prosecutors have been hounding the late Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler, zeroing in on his lyrics, it was Nielson who linked his household to protection legal professional John Hamasaki. And it was Hamasaki who managed to safe a plea deal on a lesser cost and win his launch.

It was simply the newest in collection of circumstances during which he represented rappers.

The primary was in 2014, when Hamasaki was an legal professional for Laz Tha Boy, a Bay Space rapper who had been charged in two gang-related shootings, regardless that the principle proof of his gang affiliation have been lyrics and rap movies.

Drakeo the Ruler performs throughout Rolling Loud in San Bernardino in December. The late South L.A. rapper’s lyrics have been used in opposition to him by prosecutors in a case.

(Scott Dudelson /Getty Pictures)

“It dirties up a case. It brings in more otherwise inadmissible information,” stated Hamasaki, who’s now working for San Francisco district legal professional. “The biggest problem is it’s taking an artistic outlet and using that to criminalize somebody and not recognizing that, hey, just because somebody’s talking about having a gun doesn’t mean they have a gun and did a shooting.”

However there’s an apparent cause why so many prosecutors refuse to separate fictional storytelling from real-life truth. It’s as a result of the shameless tactic too usually works with juries.

Nielson can rattle off circumstances involving rap lyrics during which convictions have been handed down, even when there was no different credible proof.

In a examine carried out within the Nineties, researchers introduced violent lyrics from a rustic track to 2 teams of individuals. The primary group was informed they got here from a rap track. The second group was informed the lyrics got here from a rustic track.

“The group who thought that this was a rap song thought it sounded far more threatening and in need of regulation than the same lyrics that were characterized as country,” Nielson stated. “That study was actually duplicated in 2016. Same findings.”

That is telling since rap has developed because the early days of N.W.A and develop into a massively worthwhile style of music that’s supposedly beloved, accepted and celebrated by Individuals of all races and ethnicities. Rap could also be mainstream, however juries, taking the lead from prosecutors, show that racism is just too.

Due to this fact, it’s extremely vital for Newsom to signal AB 2799 into regulation. It is going to make sure that prosecutors in California can be pressured to fulfill new circumstances, resembling proving in a pretrial listening to how a sure track or movie is related to the case at hand.

As Jones-Sawyer informed me, “the judicial system needs to be fair.”

That is additionally why it’s vital for lawmakers in New York to cross a now-stalled invoice that might prohibit “prosecutors from using creative expression as criminal evidence against a person without clear and convincing proof that there is a literal, factual nexus.”

Nielson has been deeply concerned in that effort, a lot of it rising out of a coverage suggestion in his 2018 guide, “Rap on Trial.” In January, a constellation of rap stars, together with Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, Massive Sean and Killer Mike, joined him in signing a letter encouraging lawmakers to cross it.

There are some issues that New York’s laws — additionally backed by the recording trade — is more durable than California’s AB 2799, significantly as a result of the latter is an identical to laws Congress is contemplating. Nonetheless, it is a case during which one thing is best than nothing.

“I do think that there was some pride that New York, the home of hip hop, was also going to be the first state to pass this protecting it,” Nielson stated. “And so now that California has stolen some of their thunder, I hope that there is some sense that this isn’t actually a radical proposal.”

That is the sort of East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry we’d like.

Not only for the Younger Thugs and the Gunnas, the rappers who’ve made it. It’s for the rappers who haven’t.

Do not forget that if you hear in regards to the Los Angeles and San Francisco chapters of the Recording Academy urging Newsom to signal AB 2799, in order that “all artists are able to express themselves freely without fear of reprisal” from the legal justice system.

Not simply those that make hundreds of thousands of {dollars} for the recording trade.