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Rapper BG's lyrics will face government scrutiny. Is it a violation of free speech?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Should the government have the right to police a musician's work? A federal judge in Louisiana recently ruled that the rapper B.G., who wrote the hit song "Bling Bling," must let the government review the lyrics of any future songs before he releases and promotes them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLING BLING")

B G: (Rapping) Man, I got these broads icing it up (ph) while my lil' B.G.'s on the bus puttin' out cigarette butts. But me, personally...

FLORIDO: The rapper served time on firearms and other charges. And the decision was one of the conditions of his continued early release from prison. Prosecutors had asked the judge to impose much stricter restrictions - no associating with people convicted of felonies, no self-employment, no leaving his home state of Nevada. It's certainly not the first time a rapper's lyrics have come under scrutiny by a criminal court, raising concerns about free speech. We've called Alexandra Kazarian. She's a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, and she joins us now. Welcome.

ALEXANDRA KAZARIAN: Hi. Thank you very much for having me.

FLORIDO: Can you tell us a little more about why this federal judge said B.G., whose legal name is Christopher Dorsey - why he has to let the government review his lyrics?

KAZARIAN: Sure. I think the judge actually made a great ruling because the prosecution was really trying to make sure that he wasn't able to work, essentially. And what the judge did was say, no, but I am going to allow the prosecution to review any new lyrics to see if they're in conflict with the goal of rehabilitation that supervised release gives. So if, for example, he is rapping about snitches going down, well, the government is going to argue that that is inciting violence against people who are cooperating with the government. That's not in line with rehabilitation, and he should go back to prison because he's not at the point of rehabilitation where he should be released. So the judge kind of met them in the middle and said, I'm not going to stop him, but I am going to allow the government to make an argument if they think that the lyrics are problematic.

FLORIDO: I think a lot of people would be surprised that the government could be allowed to do something like that.

KAZARIAN: It's a fine line, but when you're on supervised release, you're giving up your rights in order to be out in public. And so when you're on probation or parole or something like this, it's something that you agree to do. And so the question is, how far can the government go?

FLORIDO: If at some point, B.G. submits some of his lyrics to the government to review, and prosecutors decide to ask a judge to send him back to prison, what is the judge going to be looking for in those lyrics before making her decision?

KAZARIAN: So now that he is on supervised release, it is about his character. So the question is going to be, is he rehabilitated enough to be out in public, or does he need to go back to prison? So they're going to be looking for lyrics that promote violence, lyrics that promote violence against people who cooperate. One of the issues was there was a lyric that he was rapping with in his first post-release show, where they were lyrics that were about two men that were in prison currently on life sentences for murder that was part of a drug deal gone wrong, and there were disparaging remarks about a snitch.

So this is what started the whole thing. The government came back and said he's inciting violence against snitches, and he's glorifying murder during drug deals. This is not evidence of rehabilitation. This is not somebody who's sorry that he was found with guns and drugs 14 years ago in his car. He's the same person he was back then. He hasn't been rehabilitated. Put him back in prison. So that's what they're looking for is actual character evidence inside of those lyrics.

FLORIDO: This isn't the first time that a rapper's lyrics have been used against him in a courtroom. Snoop Dogg's lyrics were hauled into court when he faced charges in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDER WAS THE CASE")

SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Murder was the case that they gave me.

FLORIDO: The rapper Young Thug's lyrics came up in his ongoing trial on charges he was involved in gang activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST HOW IT IS")

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) Ooh-woo, I done did the robbing. I done did the jacking. Now I'm full rapping.

FLORIDO: Why does the government see lyrics as a useful prosecutorial tool?

KAZARIAN: Well, I think the government sees rap lyrics as a useful prosecutorial tool. I don't think that they see any other genre as where the lyrics are so useful because there's this sense that rap lyrics are autobiographical. There have been studies that show that if you tell somebody in a blind study that these lyrics are from a rap song, that people will view that person, that artist as having a character that is more disposed towards criminal activity. But if you give them the same exact lyrics and tell them that it's a folk song or a metal song or a country song, they'll laugh it off and say, no, that's just art.

So I think the government has that same exact mindset that if somebody is rapping about violence, it's because they are a violent person. And in court, that's not supposed to come in. Bad character evidence is not supposed to come in to prove that a crime happened. Evidence of the crime is supposed to come in, but your character isn't supposed to be assaulted.

FLORIDO: Your firm has a lot of celebrity clients, including musicians. If you were B.G.'s lawyer in this case, how would you advise him just in terms of sitting down to write his next song?

KAZARIAN: There's already been an infringement on his First Amendment rights because when he sits down to write a lyric, he isn't just thinking about his life and about his art. He's thinking first and foremost about the government. So there's a chilling effect. And I would encourage him to write. I would encourage him to write honestly - probably not about killing snitches. But I would encourage him to write honestly. And then once he does, we'll decide whether we're going to submit those or not, or can you just wait until you're off of supervised release?

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Alexandra Kazarian. She's a criminal defense attorney here in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAZARIAN: Absolutely. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.