“Killer Mike” has joined several other hip-hop artists to file a Supreme Court brief in support of an ex-Mississippi high-school student forced into alternative school over a violent rap song he wrote.
The brief argues that the violent rhetoric rappers sometimes use to decry social injustice shouldn’t be taken literally. When listening to other genres of music, the brief suggests, many people don’t take violent lyrics at face value.
“In ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ country artist Johnny Cash famously sang, ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ … Another first-person account of violence recorded by Cash, ‘Delia’s Gone,’ includes lines like ‘First time I shot her, I shot her in the side. / Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died.”
Their brief continued: “Cash, of course, was no more guilty of these crimes than Eric Clapton and Bob Marley were of killing police officers when they recorded their respective versions of ‘I Shot the Sheriff.'”
Elaborating on the apparent double standard, the brief went on to note that “the visceral response that many people have to rap music stems in large part from broader racial stereotypes, especially about young men of colour.”
The young man at the center of the petition, Taylor Bell, is asking the Supreme Court to take up his case after a federal appeals court found his school
had not violated his First Amendment rights.
That high school suspended Bell and forced him into the alternative school because of a rap song posted to the internet accusing two coaches of sexually harassing female students, according to Bell’s petition to get the high court to hear his case.
“As is common in rap music, Bell’s song contains vulgar and profane language, as well as violent rhetoric such as ‘betta watch your back,’ ‘hit you with my rueger,’ ‘going to get a pistol down your mouth,’ and ‘middle fingers up if you want to cap that n—-,'” Bell’s Supreme Court petition noted.
However, Bell’s petition went on to point out that school officials behaved in a way that suggested Bell wasn’t actually making a threat against the school. School officials even let him remain unattended in the school commons until his bus could pick him up at the end of the day, his lawyers said.
Rather than making a true threat, he was engaging in the same kind of “violent rhetoric and hyperbole” present in “every genre of music,” Bell’s petition said (emphasis theirs). The lower court’s decision against Bell, the petition argued, “poses a grave threat to artistic expression.”
If the Supreme Court decides to take up Bell’s case, prior high-court precedent might work in his favour. In a 7-2 ruling in June, the Supreme Court overturned a conviction of a then-27-year-old whose violent, rap-inspired Facebook posts landed him behind bars.
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