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MSW Students Advocate for “Rap Music on Trial” Bill


Can creative expression ever cross the line into confession? Prosecutors in a recent case against rapper Jeffery Williams—known popularly as Young Thug—think so, and are attempting to prove this in court. Interpreting the artist’s song lyrics as a murder manifesto, attorneys argue Williams’s words outline his position as head of the YSL, or Young Slime Life, a group accused of being a subset of the national Bloods seeking control of the Atlanta area through a slew of violent crimes. 

A group of Fordham GSS Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) students, however, believe that song lyrics as “evidence” is a concept that doesn’t hold up, and they used a class project to advocate against it. 

“Creative expression is really important. It needs to be protected,” Gabe Birnbaum, GSS ’24, said. “Fiction is fiction.”

Rap Music on Trial

Birnbaum collaborated with classmates Tessie Beaubrun, GSS ’24, Kailey McGarvey, GSS ’24, and Jiayuan Zhang, GSS ’24, on a project for their Advanced Integrated Policy Practice class to advocate for the “Rap Music on Trial” bill in response to the publicity around Williams’s case. According to The Gothamist, under the proposed bill, the New York State legislation would “only allow prosecutors to use lyrics as evidence if they can prove that they describe a specific alleged crime—that the defendant meant the words literally, and that they’re valuable to the argument.”

The group said the bill aligned with their values as social workers in its inherent racial and social justice elements. 

“There’s obviously a big racial justice element to this bill because this is just being used to target people of color,” Birnbaum said. 

a headshot of Gabe Birnbaum. in it, he wears a blue collared shirt. there are trees behind him.

Gabe Birnbaum, GSS ’24 | Photo courtesy: Gabe Birnbaum

Birnbaum added that this discrimination isn’t limited to rap artists or musicians. Using fiction as evidence in criminal trials has the potential for political repercussions; he cited Communist persecution in the 1940s and 50s as an example.

“The US has been doing things that I’ve hated since I was in high school,” Birnbaum said. “This project was really interesting because I found out that you could write one email and be in the room with people who contribute to creating laws within a week.”

The Advocacy Process

After writing a two-page policy brief outlining the project’s scope and their advocacy ideas, the group began its outreach. Using advice from Assistant Professor Jenn Lilly, Ph.D., to not duplicate others’ work, the group tried to identify people who may have already worked to support the bill. Birnbaum and his colleagues contacted over 20 New York Senators–and their efforts were fruitful. They soon connected with the Chief of Staff for Senator Holman Siegel.  

“We were very direct,” Birnbaum said. “We said, ‘We have a month to do this and are very busy. What can we actually do that will be useful for you?’ They asked us to find co-sponsors specifically in the Bronx and Manhattan because they only had two people from those areas who had signed on.”

The group eventually also contacted one of the bill’s co-sponsors. They attributed their successful campaign efforts to their prior experience in public relations and the bill’s niche and interesting nature. 

“I think it was a combination of the bill’s unique topic and the fact that all of us have worked in PR,” McGarvey said. “So we have a knack for words and networking. People were eager to speak with us.”

headshot of Kailey McGarvey, GSS '24. She wears a black shirt and is smiling.

Kailey McGarvey, GSS ’24 | Photo courtesy: Kailey McGarvey

The group wondered whether their status as social work students helped or hindered the advocacy process. Would announcing this outreach as part of a group project cause senators to take them less seriously, or would they be more willing to have the conversation? 

“It seemed like name-dropping Fordham and saying that we’re social work students was a way to get in the door,” McGarvey said. 

Once they were through the door, however, things got a bit more challenging. After the bill stalled in the New York Senate last June, the group was eager to learn why it didn’t pass and how they could help it do so when reintroduced this January. No one had answers for them. 

“No one we talked to could identify the actual reason why because none of them knew,” Birnbaum said. “They all just gave us lists of possible things that could have happened, but none of them knew how to verify it.”

One of their senatorial contacts advised that awareness was key to furthering the movement. So, the group is on the right path.

Transferable, Real-World Skills

Sometimes, academia can get bogged down by theory. And while these theories serve as a terrific guide for practice, a lot of valuable learning comes from doing. That’s what made this project so important. 

“This project translated to the real world,” McGarvey said. “This stuff can actually be done and used to make a difference.”

Being a musician, Birnbaum particularly resonated with the project’s scope. He sees musicians as a vulnerable population and uses his assignments in class to advocate for societal actions that will contribute to their well-being, and this was no different. 

“Musicians and most freelance workers in America are treated unfairly constantly,” he said. “This kind of thing matters to me because a lot of policies need to change for anyone who’s a gig economy worker. This sector will only get bigger and bigger, and these people have no safety net. We’re going to have to address that soon.”


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