A Look at Rap Artist Killer Mike's Supreme Court Brief
In 2012, Taylor Bell, a Mississippi high school senior with a spotless disciplinary record, posted a rap song online. The song accused two gym teachers at Itawamba Agricultural High School of sexually harassing female students -- but it also included violent lyrics not uncommon in much gangsta rap. Bell was suspended, sued, and is now petitioning the Supreme Court for cert.
On his side is a host of civil libertarians and students' rights groups filing amici briefs urging the Court to take up Bell's case. Among them is the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. Killer Mike's amici brief is joined by seven other artists, including T.I. and Big Boi, but his contribution is unique: he, along with three legal scholars, actually wrote the brief. Here's what the rapper had to say to the Supreme Court.
From Rap to Jurisprudence
If you haven't been following Atlanta-area underground hip hop, you might not be familiar with Killer Mike. Killer Mike is the nom de stage of Michael Render, half of the hip hop duo Run the Jewels.
Run the Jewels' critically-acclaimed music bounces between traditional gangsta rap and leftist politics. In songs like "Big Beast," Killer Mike brags about robbing and shooting. In "Reagan," he takes on supply-side economics, name checks Oliver North, and cites the Thirteenth Amendment.
As the brief explains, when Killer Mike "isn't recording or performing, he can be found in television studies or university lecture halls talking about a wide range of issues, particularly those related to race and social justice." It continues, "he performs as Killer Mike -- but for this brief, in particular, it probably is worth noting that he has never actually killed anyone."
The amicus brief is coauthored by three academics: Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology at U.C. Irvine who has studied the use of rap as criminal evidence; Erik Nielson, and assistant professor at the University of Richmond; and Travis Gosa, an assistant professor at Cornell.
Singled Out for (Hip Hop) Speech
Killer Mike and co.'s argument is straight forward. "The government punished a young man for his art -- and more, disturbing, for the musical genre by which he chose to express himself," the brief argues. Granting cert would allow the Court to vindicate Bell's First Amendment rights and ensure that rap music isn't denied free speech protections.
The brief operates as an "Introduction to Hip Hop 101" for Supreme Court justices who tend to gravitate towards opera. As the brief notes, "the Fifth Circuit focused on the violent rhetoric in Bell's songs." The Fifth found no First Amendment violations and highlighted Bell's violent lyrics, which they found were "threatening, harassing, and intimidating to a teacher." Those lyrics included lines such as "f*cking with the wrong one / gon get a pistol down your mouth -- BOW."
Artistic, Not Literal, Lyrics
But, Killer Mike's brief claims, those violent words aren't threatening or disruptive, they are simply the conventions of an artistic genre. Indeed, some of Bell's "threatening" words were taken directly from established artists. Though gangsta rap includes "coarse language, explicit themes, and violent rhetoric," it is not meant to be literal.
Those themes are also not unique to hip hop. When Johnny Cash sang "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," his music was understood to be fictional. No authorities opened an investigation. Eric Clapton and Bob Marley weren't actually confessing to shooting the sheriff, the brief notes.
"By taking Bell's song lyrics literally rather than as forms of artistic expression, both the school and the Fifth Circuit essentially delegitimized rap as an art form that is entitled to full protection under the Constitution," the brief argues.
We'll have to wait and see if the Court finds the issues raised by Bell's case -- and Killer Mike's brief -- to be significant enough for review. The Mississippi school district has until January 20th to respond to Bell's petition and it may take the Court months to decide to grant cert or not.
- Hip-Hop Stars Support Mississippi Rapper in First Amendment Case (The New York Times)
- Notorious RBG on Recent SCOTUS Cases and Her Love for Gangsta Rap (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- SCOTUS Reverses 'Facebook Threats' Conviction (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- Music and Law: A Match Made in (Secular) Heaven (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
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