Rep. Hank Johnson Says the RAP Act Will Help All Artists: ‘We Have to Protect the First Amendment’

United States Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04) has seen many ways and angles at which those in power have sought to chip away at First Amendment rights. The latest threat has been at the expense of rap musicians, particularly Black men, who he says are being unfairly prosecuted because of bias and prejudice. But Johnson is hopeful his new bill, the RAP Act, can help protect more than just rappers but the creative expression of all artists.

In late July, Johnson introduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act — or the RAP Act — a bill that will prevent any form of artistic expression from being admissible as evidence in federal cases. The legislation comes as a wave of rappers, most notable among them the Atlanta-based rapper Young Thug, have been prosecuted and indicted based on their lyrics or music videos being used as evidence. Young Thug’s case as well as countless others have rallied the music industry to call on lawmakers like Jonhson to act.

“When you have a situation where a group of people who have a First Amendment right are now reticent about exercising that right because they feel like they’ll be prosecuted or they are subject to prosecution based on their creative content, it’s drying up freedom of speech. It hurts and takes away one’s freedom of speech if you don’t feel free in expressing yourself,” Johnson told TheWrap. “So if it can happen to rappers, it can happen to country music artists, it can happen to actors and painters and every other form of art.”

Congressman Hank Johnson RAP Act
From left, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Todd Dupler, Vice President of Advocacy & Public Policy of The Recording Academy and Rep. Hank Johnson attend the Rap and The Rules of Evidence Panel on Sept. 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Johnson has for some time now recognized how urgently such a bill was needed. For him that realization came on Super Bowl Sunday 2019, when a day earlier, Atlanta-based rapper 21 Savage performed on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” with a rendition of his song “A Lot,” rapping that he couldn’t imagine the idea of “kids trapped at the border.” Shortly after that performance, 21 Savage (real name Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for allegedly overstaying his visa. To this day, his immigration status remains in limbo.

And though Johnson’s bill, which he co-sponsored with Jamal Bowman (NY-16), is the first of its kind on the federal level, it follows similar legislation both in New York (which ultimately failed) and another bill in California, which Gov. Gavin Newsom just signed on Friday after hearing support from rappers like YG, Killer Mike, Ty Dolla Sign, Tyga and Meek Mill.

Johnson notes that his bill won’t have a direct impact on the Young Thug case in his state of Georgia (he had no comment on Young Thug’s case). But he’s hopeful that such legislation is gaining momentum across states as more in the music industry have thrown their weight behind it.

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Below, Johnson discusses why the RAP Act is so crucial and why he’s hopeful it can still be passed.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you seek to introduce the RAP Act, and what do you hope it will address?
There is a real need to protect the artistic expressions of all artists, particularly African American males. Because we’ve seen over the years the use of rap lyrics as evidence against Black people accused of crime, and it has been an effective weapon for prosecutors across the country. Often times, we’ve seen that these rap lyrics are introduced into evidence in order to prove a state of mind or a gang affiliation or a propensity for violence or drug dealing… which acts to inflame the passions of the fact finder against the artist — the rapper. And so when you convict people based on prejudice and bias, as opposed to evidence, real direct hard evidence of crime, that’s unfair.

It also opens the door for prosecution of other artists in other mediums for their work. For instance, an artist or an actor who may play a role may end up being prosecuted because that role the artist played is used to show that that person or that actor has a propensity to actually do what his role provided for him to do. Someone who may paint or draw something, that can be used as evidence that you did what you depicted in that drawing, or that painting.

So there has to be some guardrails put up. Prosecutors have been allowed to introduce that evidence without sufficient showing of a substantive connection to the crime alleged. And so what the RAP Act does is put some guardrails in place. It creates a presumption that artistic expression is inadmissible as evidence unless certain facts are shown.

What is really the big picture when it comes to protecting things like the First Amendment?
Certainly poetry and lyrics to songs are expression, not necessarily meant to be truth. To be able to create is to be able to create and express oneself is the essence of the First Amendment. So this is about the protection of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, expression.

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As you’ve advocated on behalf of this bill, what have some of the conversations been like with your colleagues or your constituents?
When you explain to people what has happened and how it can easily spill over into other genres of music and also mediums of entertainment and creativity, most people understand that we have to protect the First Amendment rights that we have. We’re living in times where across the world it appears that authoritarianism is taking root and growing. And it’s against those kinds of realities that we have situations like First Amendment protections being chipped away from various angles. So when you allow music and creativity to be impacted, you’re opening the door for other realms of free speech to be curtailed and limited. It’s something that you have the nip in the bud, and most people understand that.

How might this bill still be challenged?
There are some people who don’t really care about the First Amendment, I guess, but most Americans care about the freedoms that we have and that we hold dear. And they want to preserve and protect them. So this is legislation is very timely, and there’s a need for it. So I think it’s going to continue to attract support as we look at making sure that we can get this legislation passed.

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