- A group of prominent rappers, including Meek Mill, Chance the Rapper, and Killer Mike, schooled the US Supreme Court on the history of rap in a legal brief filed on Wednesday.
- They were urging the justices to take up a case involving a rapper who was imprisoned over lyrics that threatened two police officers.
- The rappers said the genre has historically included literary devices such as hyperbole and offensive language, and that the lyrics in question were “poetry” – not threats.
A group of prominent rappers, along with music-industry leaders and scholars, urged the Supreme Court in a legal brief filed on Wednesday to consider violent rap lyrics as speech protected under the First Amendment.
Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Killer Mike, 21 Savage, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe joined an amicus brief asking the justices to take up a case involving the rapper Jamal Knox, who is appealing the two-year prison sentence he received over threats to police officers in his rap lyrics.
In 2012, Knox and Rashee Beasley, known by the stage names Mayhem Mal and Soulja Beaz, recorded a song loosely based on the N.W.A. hit, “F— tha Police.” But Knox and Beasley’s version included the names of two Pittsburgh police officers who had previously arrested them, along with graphic descriptions of violent acts against the officers.
Knox’s verses in the song described wanting to “jam this rusty knife all up in his guts and chop his feet” and threatened, “Your shift over at three and I’m gonna f— up where you sleep.”
“This first verse is for Officer Zeltner and all you fed force bitches / And Mr. Kosko, you can suck my d— you keep on knocking my riches,” Knox’s first verse reads.
The police officers in question testified that they felt “nervous” after they heard the song and found the lyrics “very upsetting.” One of the officers cited the song as a reason he eventually left the Pittsburgh police force.
Knox was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for “terroristic threats and witness intimidation” relating to the song’s lyrics.
But the legal brief, written in part by the rappers, said the lyrics were “a work of poetry” – not a threat.
“It is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand,” the artists wrote.
The rappers also delved into the history of hip-hop music, beginning in the Bronx in the 1970s, where hip-hop music was created in part “to end gang violence by providing an outlet that transformed the competitiveness and territoriality of gang life into something artistic and productive.”
The brief said rappers have historically used their platform to “raise awareness about the problems facing urban America” and to challenge “public figures and institutions” that ignored or even harmed the interests of their communities.
The rappers said the nature of rap music is to use exaggeration, hyperbole, and offensive language as literary devices.
“Like all poets, rappers use figurative language, relying on a full range of literary devices such as simile and metaphor,” the brief said. “Rappers also, in the tradition of African American vernacular, invent new words, invert the meaning of others, and lace their lyrics with dense slang and coded references that defy easy interpretation, especially among listeners unfamiliar with the genre.”
The rappers said neither Knox nor his lyrics were out of the ordinary in a genre that often reflects and critiques the violence lived by its creators.
“Across the country, countless young people – often those of colour – have found a voice in rap music, too. For some it also has offered a legitimate career path, one leading away from the violence and despair so frequently chronicled in rap lyrics,” the rappers wrote.
They continued: “If we criminalise those lyrics, we risk silencing many Americans already struggling to be heard.”
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