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The RAP Act would bar the use of music lyrics in court proceedings

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Restoring Artists Protection Act, the RAP Act, is a proposal to limit the use of lyrics in federal criminal proceedings, lyrics from songs like this one called "Anybody" by Young Thug and Nicki Minaj.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYBODY")

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body. I got the streets on my back, carry it like I'm moving a body.

RASCOE: Those words are currently being presented alongside other evidence in the case brought against Young Thug, Gunna and others in Atlanta. Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York is a co-sponsor of the RAP Act, and he joins us now. Congressman, welcome to the program.

JAMAAL BOWMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So that Atlanta case is ongoing, and obviously defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But generally speaking, if a person is charged with a crime and they've made a specific reference to that crime in a song, what is the issue with using it as evidence in a trial?

BOWMAN: Well, first you have to start with hard evidence - forensic evidence, witness testimony, weapons and the like. You know, this is not just about Young Thug and Gunna. This is about over the last, I would say, a decade, where in 500 separate cases, rap lyrics were introduced as part of indictment and conviction proceedings in comparison to other genres of music. They've only been used or introduced five times, and in all five of the other cases, the lyrics were thrown out. And if you have hard evidence, forensic evidence and a case without the lyrics and you want to use lyrics or lyrics that reference a particular crime after you have the hard evidence, you know, that is admissible.

RASCOE: Can you give us some examples of cases where rap lyrics have played a key part in the prosecution?

BOWMAN: So amateur rappers Gary Bryant Jr. and Diallo Jackson had their convictions overturned recently because they were convicted of murder pretty much based on their rap lyrics alone without other evidence. And that case is very promising because it creates a pathway forward for many other convictions to be overturned and for people to understand in my line of work, particularly in Congress, that policies like this need to move forward not just at the federal level, but also at the state level.

RASCOE: I spoke with Pusha T, a rapper, earlier this year, you know, and he talked about how rap is about crafting a narrative. It's about storytelling. People look at rappers, and they think that they're kind of, like, you know, rapping their diary, that they're rapping about things they actually did. Why did you want to draw this out into law to make clear that rap lyrics are also a form of artistic expression?

BOWMAN: Well, first, there is racism in our country. There is racial bias in our country. And that racial bias is connected to hip-hop and rap for obvious reasons, because the genre and the culture and the art form is disproportionately Black and Latino. So what we found and what studies have shown is when rap lyrics are introduced, the racial bias kicks in, and people automatically believe that what's being said is explicit and a documentary, if you will, of a person's life, of what they've done. And as a result, they are - they're now considered to be guilty because of the bias.

RASCOE: You grew up listening to rap. You listen to rap, right?

BOWMAN: So my knowledge of self came from rap and hip-hop. I would not know my history and culture as a Black man if it weren't for KRS-One, Chuck D and Rakim. I wouldn't have a political education and political perspective, especially not the one I have now, if it weren't for, you know, Brand Nubian, X Clan and many other artists. You know, finally, I grew up without a father, and many of these rappers were father figures to me growing up and pretty much the superheroes that guided my life. So it's incredibly personal.

RASCOE: You know, part of the sausage-making of getting legislation passed is getting the support of interest groups. And in a case like this, I would think that maybe support from police unions or advocates from law enforcement might help. Have you talked to any of those types of interest groups or even prosecutors, etc., to see if you could get backing?

BOWMAN: Yes, particularly prosecutors. We are having ongoing conversations with them. Law enforcement is also going to be helpful. We haven't begun those conversations just yet. But obviously we want to start with our colleagues in the House and Senate. We need a Senate lead. So we're still going to be organizing to try and get someone to take on that lead. And we're looking for bipartisan support in the House because, you know, Republicans care about free speech, so they should be ready, willing and excited to join a piece of legislation like this.

RASCOE: You know, at the end of the day, this is obviously something that you're pursuing at the federal level. What happens at the state level?

BOWMAN: You know, California and New York are usually the states that lead on these issues. And we hope that those states, in addition to the federal law, can be a model for other states to follow suit. In the same way, you know, President Biden recently pardoned the marijuana convictions of 6,500 people charged with possession and is asking the states to follow suit, we're hoping the states follow suit on what we're trying to do at the federal level as well.

RASCOE: That's Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: No problem. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.