RAP MUSIC ON TRIAL: Artistic Expression or Confession of Guilt? When IP Meets Criminal Law

Mona Karimi is a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. This article was written as a requirement for Prof. Pina D’Agostino’s IP Intensive Program.

If you’re a fan of Hip-Hop music, you might just find your favourite artist fighting to protect themselves from their own lyrics. Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, others have joined forces to openly endorse the Rap Music on Trial Bill. New York Senators Brad Holyman and Jamaal Bailey drafted the legislation to amend the state’s criminal procedure law to strictly limit the admissibility of a defendant’s lyrics, videos, or other creative expressions as evidence. The bill argues that musical works being admitted as evidence against artists violates their First Amendment right to freedom of artistic expression. However, the issue’s racial component prompted Hoylman and Bailey to take action. The Senators reasoned that seldomly do we see lyrics from other genres utilized as evidence in criminal courtrooms, but rap lyrics and videos have been used as evidence in hundreds of cases. States like California have taken a stronger stance on this issue with Gov. Gavin Newson recently signing the Decriminalizing Artistic Expressions Act, effectively restricting the use of rap lyrics in courtrooms.

If you thought this was a foreign practice in Canada, think again. Crown in Canada have also relied upon an accused person’s artistic creations, unsurprisingly in the form of rap music, to establish guilt. In the Ontario Court of Appeal’s recent decision in R. V. Skeete, the Trial Judge permitted the accused’s rap music to bolster the Crown’s case for first-degree murder and devised a new method for admitting this type of evidence, which suffers from some flaws. The admission of rap lyrics (disproportionately more often than other genres) feeds into racial bias and perpetuates damaging racist stereotypes. In his article, “Rethinking the Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Cases,” University of Windsor Law Professor Tanovich offers a compelling case that when rap lyrics are used in court, their cultural and artistic context is stripped away and substituted with one of apparent legal relevance, which can then be distorted to reinforce racial preconceptions. The criminal justice system in Canada has long struggled with systematic anti-Black racism, and the establishment of practices and egregious bias against certain genres of music that are typically linked to Black culture only serves to exacerbate the problem. Rap lyrics’ admissibility doesn’t just sacrifice art for a quick conviction, but arguably enables a racially discriminatory and biased practice to flourish in the legal system.

Where the Crown can use a person’s artistic expression as incriminating evidence, the system risks limiting such expression and clashes with the government’s mandate to foster and promote the enjoyment and production of artistic works and threatens growth in the Canadian music scene both domestically and internationally. Imagine how different your favourite Drake song would be if he had to remove every potentially incriminating lyric. It will be interesting see how the judicial system’s particular focus on hip-hop affects how people make music and how these competing objectives, in two different areas of the law, will reconcile.

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