Open Letter: New York Literary Organizations Support ‘Rap Music on Trial’ Legislation
To Governor Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie:
We write to you as New York literary organizations invested in freedom of expression, racial justice, and the First Amendment. On behalf of New York City’s literary community and supporters, we express our strong support for “Rap Music on Trial” legislation (S. 7527/A.8681) as a much-needed initiative to protect writers and artists from having their lyrics used in court as criminal evidence.
“Rap Music on Trial” rightly condemns the use of an artist’s work as evidence in court. As you are aware, prosecutors’ use of rap music lyrics as evidence in criminal cases perpetuates racial discrimination against Black and Brown artists, who are predominant in the genre and whose voices have a history of being silenced by the criminal justice system. The hip hop movement was born in the late 1970s from Black and Latino youth in the South Bronx voicing their frustrations with oppressive institutions, systemic poverty, and exclusion from the American mainstream. When prosecutors focus solely on references to violence in rap music, they are taking the lyrics out of context and neglecting to consider the conventions of the music genre. They are equating the artists’ creative liberties and artistic persona as confessions of guilt, which is a severe misrepresentation of the artform and goes against the very spirit of freedom of expression.
We commend the proposed “Rap Music on Trial” legislation for ensuring freedom of creative expression for artists as a fundamental right. Erik Nielson, author of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, identified approximately 500 cases of rap used in trial prosecutions, often in cases resulting in significant sentences. In one 2021 case, rapper Lawrence Montague’s lyrics recording was used against him in court, and he received a 50-year sentence. The potential use of creative expression in prosecution elicits fear of self-incrimination and chills artistic expression.
The NYC Literary Action Coalition maintains an active interest in advancing racial justice work through roundtable discussions, petitions, and direct action. Last year, we hosted an Instagram live series featuring writers, activists, lawyers, and publishers discussing the criminalization of protest rights, which disproportionately impacts BIPOC activists and community organizers. The NYC Literary Action Coalition is deeply committed to highlighting the intersection between writing and activism.
As writers, publishers, booksellers, and literary advocates, we believe this legislation will serve the literary community and beyond in recognizing the fundamental right of writers, songwriters, and rappers to express themselves freely without fear of misconstrued self-incrimination.
Asian American Writers Workshop
BAAD! Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance
Center for Fiction
Fledgling Writing Workshop
Harlem Writers Guild
Literary Freedom Project
Morningside Writers Group
New York Writers Coalition
Nuyorican Poets Cafe
PEN Children’s & Young Adult Books Committee
Subway Book Review
Urban Word NYC
Word Up Community Bookshop
Writers Club New York