SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Anerae Brown was on the rise as an up-and-coming rap artist when he joined a crime that turned deadly: the 1992 slaying of Meadowview community activist Patricia Harris.
His own art became part of the case against him as he stood trial with three other gang members accused of killing Harris in a break-in that went bad.
A judge allowed prosecutors to play Brown’s songs in court. They mined his music, pulling lyrics from his gangster rap album “Psycho Active” depicting killings and other violence as they built a case against the then-17-year-old artist known as X-Raided.
The jury came back with a guilty verdict, and Brown spent the next 26 years in prison.
Today, he’s an advocate for a proposed law sitting on Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that could have changed his life 30 years ago. It would block prosecutors from using rap lyrics or other art as evidence in court cases unless the attorney can tie the work to a specific crime.
Its author, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, calls the bill an attempt to limit opportunities for prosecutors to create “explicit or implicit bias” against a defendant. It passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, and did not face organized opposition from prosecutors or law enforcement lobbyists. Newsom has until Friday to sign or veto it.
Brown, who continues to perform under the stage name X-Raided, views the bill as a major opportunity to protect people of color from unjust prosecutions and biased policing.
“This bill is an acknowledgment of systemic racism being involved,” Brown said. “It was a huge thing for me. Because he specifies the intent behind this is not just to protect artists’ rights but also to protect minorities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds from being persecuted and literally prosecuted as well.”
The bill would protect other kinds of artists, such as filmmakers and writers, but it gained a reputation in the Capitol as the “rap lyrics bill” because of the long history of hip-hop musicians facing criminal charges connected to music depicting life in underserved African American and Black communities.
Growing up in Meadowview, a south Sacramento neighborhood, Brown said he was a misunderstood teenager when he wrote the lyrics that contributed to his conviction and sentencing in 1996.
Although Brown said he is “morally responsible” for his participation in the crime that led to Harris’ death, he believes his words should have been seen as a cry for help.
“I don’t know how many calls for help were on my first album. Looking back at that, it would be incredibly alarming to have some 17-year-old child write ‘Psycho Active,’” he said. “The dark subject matter contained in that project should not have been in the brain of a 16- or 17-year-old child. It calls for concern.”
During his prosecution, he said wasn’t sure if prosecutors were aware his lyrics had nothing to do with Harris’ death and were making a mistake, or if it was a deliberate move to disenfranchise young Black men escaping poverty.
Hip-Hop versus the legal system
Hip-hop artists have been facing law enforcement scrutiny over their music for decades.
In 1989, for instance, members of the hip-hop group N.W.A. were detained in Detroit after performing their hit “F--- Tha Police” during a concert whereby contract they were supposed to not play that song.
More recently, prosecutors in Atlanta over the summer announced they would use lyrics in court as they press gang-related charges against the rapper Young Thug.
Another Sacramento rapper, Shawn Thomas, better known as C-Bo was prosecuted over lyrics in his 1998 song “Deadly Game” featuring X-Raided.
In addition to calling out elected officials and enforcement officers in the song, he rapped in the chorus, “it’s a deadly game of baseball, so when they try to pull you over shoot ‘em in his y’all.”
Prosecutors said C-Bo violated the terms of his parole, including a provision that he “not engage in any behavior which promotes the gang lifestyle, criminal behavior, and (or) violence towards law enforcement.”
The song was a response to the 1994 California ballot initiative known as Three Strikes Law, detailing how C-Bo felt as a Black man being targeted by law enforcement, the legal system and the workforce.
Brown and others believe that the practice of prosecuting artists is a deliberate attack on popular figures in the hip-hop community, an industry dominated by African American and Black people and their culture.
“There is an economic viability happening within our culture and I believe that was under attack,” he said. “It has been an effort to eliminate this particular stream of revenue that has been allowing people to change their lives and move into new economic status and people became uncomfortable.”
Other Sacramento artists who have faced criminal charges also are hoping to see the bill become law.
Sacramento rapper Donald Oliver, best known as Lavish D or C.M.L, is in favor of the bill because it would “protect Black artists.”
“I don’t think they should use rap lyrics against people due to the fact you have gangsters and you have studio gangsters,” Oliver said. “Some people can be telling somebody else’s story or talking about stuff they’ve seen growing up as a kid.”
He added that most rappers are not living the lives they portray in their music. Some rappers even have ghostwriters penning lyrics for them.
“Most of the rappers didn’t graduate from high school or grew up in low income housing. Every time you walk outside you see poverty or parents doing drugs … we look at rap as an outlet, a ticket out of this situation,” Oliver said.
Oliver hails from south Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood, just like Brown.
Just like X-Raided, Oliver got caught up in the criminal justice system and prosecutors cited his music in court, including videos to suggest he was notorious gang leader in Sacramento.
Oliver has been linked to fights at shopping malls and a shooting at a park. He was prosecuted in 2017 for gun and assault charges and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
“They look at who you’re associated with and group you in with them and assume they know what type of activities you’re into,” said Lavish D. “You’re rapping about things that sound familiar and that’s when they get to picking through lyrics.”
He called the practice a “lazy” investigation tactic that harms Black artists.
“If (Newsom) did (sign the bill) then it’ll make everything better because now investigators and prosecutors have to do their job,” he said.