(New York) — Today PEN America and the Literary Action Coalition sent a letter signed by 21 New York literary organizations to New York State legislators in support of “Rap Music on Trial” legislation (S.7527/A.8681), which would strengthen free speech protections by ending the use of art created by a defendant as evidence against them in a criminal case. Signatories include Author’s Guild, Center for Fiction, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and Asian American Writers Workshop.

“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,” the letter reads.

“The use of lyrics as evidence in criminal cases is a prosecutorial practice that is inherently dangerous to people’s First Amendment rights,” said James Tager, director of research at PEN America. “We also cannot ignore the fact that the submission of lyrics as evidence in criminal cases is disproportionately used to try to lock up people of color, including those in the rap community who call New York home. New York legislators need to pass this legislation now before another musical artist’s creative expression is weaponized against them.”

“Nobody understands the importance of the First Amendment quite like the literary community. I’m deeply grateful for this letter from PEN America and so many other literary organizations in support of the bill I introduced with Senator Jamaal Bailey, known as “Rap Music on Trial” (S.7527/A.8681) that protects creative expression from being twisted into criminal evidence. Art is creative expression, not a blueprint of criminal plans. It’s time to protect the First Amendment rights of all artists,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman.

“Police, prosecutors, and judges routinely engage in the damaging practice of misusing rap lyrics in criminal trials as a tool of mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth. This is not only about strengthening and protecting the First Amendment rights of artists of color; we need to stop the unjust and blatantly racist practice of using the free expression of artists against them in a courtroom. I am proud to sponsor this groundbreaking and incredibly important legislation in the New York State Assembly, and I thank the advocates and my Senate counterparts for their hard work on getting this bill passed in this year’s legislative session,” said New York State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz.

“Rap should not be treated differently from any other art form; yet in courtrooms across the country, artists have been unfairly targeted for simply exercising their right to creative expression,” said New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey. “With the nation-leading ‘Rap Music on Trial’ legislation, New York state will protect this fundamental right by prohibiting the use of art, including rap lyrics, from being permissible criminal evidence without a strong, factual nexus between the art and the facts of the case. 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. If we want to preserve the integrity of our First Amendment rights, combat discrimination in our courtrooms, and encourage unbounded creativity, we cannot continue to allow prosecutors to weaponize musicians’ own lyrics against them.”

“Forward-thinking legislation like this, that proactively respects and protects artistic expression, is what makes me proud to be a New Yorker. I hope that we can help pass this legislation, and set a positive example for the whole country, and world, as leaders in linguistic and creative freedom,” said Lisa Ann Markuson, founder of Ars Poetica.

“This is an important moment for the New York City literary community. Writers, booksellers, and literary advocates alike have come together to stand in solidarity with all artists who are affected by the criminalization of rap music lyrics,” said Alejandro Heredia, community outreach manager at PEN America. 

You can read the full letter here: pen.org/open-letter-new-york-literary-organizations-support-rap-music-on-trial-legislation/