Jay-Z Urges NY Lawmakers To Stop Using Lyrics Against Rappers in Court

Jay-Z has joined forces with a host of musicians in an effort to bring an end to lyrics being used against rappers in New York courtrooms.

The rapper and entrepreneur, real name Shawn Carter, has teamed up with Meek Mill and an array of artists—including Big Sean, Fat Joe, Robin Thicke, Kelly Rowland, and Yo Gotti—to urge lawmakers to sign and turn into state law the "Rap Music on Trial" bill (S.7527/A.8681).

"This is an issue that's important to [Jay-Z] and all the other artists that have come together to try to bring about this change," Alex Spiro, Jay-Z's lawyer, told Rolling Stone. "This is a long time coming. Mr. Carter is from New York, and if he can lend his name and his weight, that's what he wants to do."

The group signed letter, co-written by Spiro and University of Richmond Professor Erik Nielson, says "reform is urgently needed" on the bill which seeks to limit access to a defendant's music as evidence presented during a trial.

Per Rolling Stone, the draft legislation proposes that prosecutors would be required to show "clear and convincing" evidence that a defendant's recorded music is "literal, rather than figurative or fictional" with regards to their trial.

The letter states: "Rather than acknowledge rap music as a form of artistic expression, police and prosecutors argue that the lyrics should be interpreted literally—in the words of one prosecutor, as 'autobiographical journals'—even though the genre is rooted in a long tradition of storytelling that privileges figurative language, is steeped in hyperbole, and employs all of the same poetic devices we find in more traditional works of poetry.

"This tactic effectively denies rap music the status of art and, in the process, gives prosecutors a dangerous advantage in the courtroom. By presenting rap lyrics as rhymed confessions of illegal behavior, they are often able to obtain convictions even when other evidence is lacking."

Senators Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx), and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz (D-Queens) first proposed the bill in November 2021.

According to Rolling Stone, it passed through the New York Senate Codes Committee on Tuesday, marking a major step toward a full vote on the Senate floor.

Jay-Z
Jay-Z arrives for the Los Angeles Special Screening of Netflix's "The Harder They Fall" at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, October 13, 2021. The star has backed a proposed bill to stop rappers' lyrics from being used against them in New York courts. CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

"Lean Back" rapper Fat Joe, real name Joseph Cartagena, said that the crux of the bill is to have rappers' music "recognized as art," rather than be "weaponized" to secure criminal convictions.

He told Rolling Stone: "Our lyrics are a creative form of self-expression and entertainment—just like any other genre. We want our words to be recognized as art rather than being weaponized to get convictions in court. I hope the governor and all the lawmakers in New York take our letter into consideration, protect our artistic rights and make the right decision to pass this bill."

Bailey also shared a statement with the publication saying that the new bill would place an onus on prosecutors to show a "strong, factual nexus between the art and the facts of the case," as opposed to building a case around their music.

"Presuming a defendant's guilt based solely on musical genre or creative expression is antithetical to our foundational rights and perpetuates the systemic racism that is embedded into the criminal justice system through discriminatory conflations of hip-hop and rap with criminality," Bailey said.

Hoylman said of the celebrity backing the bill has received: "It's humbling to have the who's who of hip-hop supporting this legislation. I think it points to how important it is in this moment to protect freedom of expression."

He had previously said that nobody took Johnny Cash at his word when he sang that he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," or that David Byrne is a "psycho killer." As such, he said, rappers' lyrics should not be used against them in court.

Meek Mill and Fat Joe
Hip-hop stars (L-R) Meek Mill and Fat Joe have also backed the "Rap Music on Trial" bill, which on Tuesday took a major step toward a full vote on the senate floor. Taylor Hill/WireImage;/Taylor Hill/WireImage