ComplexCon 2022’s The War on Rap panel, hosted by journalist Ari Melber and featuring T.I. and Bun B, took place on Saturday (Nov. 19) at the Long Beach Convention Center. The conversation saw Melber, T.I., and Bun B discuss the criticized practice of prosecutors using rap lyrics against Black artists in criminal cases.
One case that was frequently referenced during the panel was that of Young Thug and Gunna, who were arrested on RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges alongside 26 others earlier this year. Prosecutors in that case are attempting to use the lyrics of Thug and Gunna as evidence to prove they are guilty.
One point in particular that was made throughout the conversation was the double standard that’s applied to Black rappers in comparison to white artists who work in music, film, and television. Melber brought up the widely followed Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial and that lawyers did not attempt to argue that Depp’s movies, in which he’s played violent characters, are evidence of the actor being violent in real life.
“So Johnny Depp was on trial for allegations of violence. How do you prove whether he was violent or not? Do you go to the evidence, the facts about his life, or do you go to the fact that he played a violent pirate?”
“He played a violent drug dealer in Blow too,” Bun B, who was wearing a “Free Gunna” t-shirt, added.
Melber continued, “We want to show you the contrast because whatever came up in that trial they never brought in his lines from a film, the way they’re bringing lines from other art against Black artists.”
One of the lines being used in the YSL RICO case includes Thug rapping that he’s “ready for war like I’m Russia” on his “Anybody” track featuring Nicki Minaj. Melber, who is also an attorney, spoke on the absurdity of using the line in court.
“As a lawyer I think it’s wild they’re using this in the case,” he said. “I don’t think that Thug is saying he actually has access to nuclear weapons… or satellites… I don’t think this is literal, I think it’s an allegorical bravado. This is in the case, right, I don’t have to say the case is dumb I just have to show you how dumb this is.”
Bun B later said that rap is rarely regarded as being a legitimate art form and by extension not allowed to be excluded from being used as evidence in criminal proceedings.
“Hip-hop is always looked at as cool, like the culture is cool, it’s fun, it’s hip, it’s edgy, it’s all that but it’s never described as art,” he explained. “It’s never put in that box. It’s never labeled as such. Which allows them to denigrate the culture… It allows it to label it outside everything they deem classy or worthy or of value. It’s very easy to devalue hip-hop culture by using lyrics like they put up on there to literally box everyone in under that one thing.”
He added, “When YSL is on trial, hip-hop is on trial.”
Towards the end of the discussion, Melber pointed to California having recently passed AB 2799 a.k.a. the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act. The bill, which bans prosecutors from using rap lyrics as evidence, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom back in September.
Although it has yet to be passed, H.R. 8531 or the Restoring Artistic Protection Act of 2022 (RAP Act) was introduced on the federal level in July by Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). The Rap Act, similar to the one passed on the state level in California, would, according to the bill, “Amend the Federal Rules of Evidence to limit the admissibility of evidence of a defendant’s creative or artistic expression against such defendant in a criminal proceeding, and for other purposes.”
Relatedly, Young Thug and a host of other prominent artist have promoted the Protect Black Art petition, which was launched by 300 Entertainment’s Kevin Liles and Atlantic Records’ COO Julie Greenwald.
“In courtrooms across America, Black creativity and artistry is being criminalized,” Liles and Greenwald previously said in a statement. “With increasing and troubling frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions.”
Since being launched, the petition has garnered over 65,000 signatures on Change.org.
“I always use my music as a form of artistic expression and now I see that Black artists and rappers don’t have that, you know, freedom,” Thug said during a message that was played during Hot 97’s Summer Jam. “Everybody please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all.”
ComplexCon continues on Sunday (Nov. 20) at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California with a headlining performance from NIGO® and special guests like Clipse, Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, and more to celebrate the influential artist and designer’s latest album I Know NIGO! Head here to purchase tickets to see the show and attend ComplexCon.