Killer Mike & Big Boi Are Helping Bring Hip-Hop’s First Amendment Rights to the Supreme Court (Audio)
On Monday (December 21), the Supreme Court received a plea for justice involving a Mississippi high-school student who in 2011 faced charges relating to an alleged threat he made against another, a threat law enforcement argued he delivered in the form of Rap lyrics. Taylor Bell was a senior when his online behavior drew ire from school officials, who eventually suspended the boy. It all began when Bell, an aspiring MC, recorded a song in response to controversy at his school, where some female students had accused two coaches of sexual misconduct. The song’s lyrics were deemed violent, specifically a verse in which he referenced the coaches in question being punished for their behavior with getting “a pistol down your mouth.”After being punished by the school, Mr. Bell and his mother sued, hoping to have the young man’s record expunged to prevent his being held back from pursuing a fruitful future (after all, getting into college with a serious academic discipline issue is very difficult). However, the Bell family’s argument was rejected by a New Orleans circuit court, and Bell now has a significant blemish on his academic record. Several years later, his case may be heading to the Supreme Court in what may prove to be the most visible Hip-Hop related case the court has heard in recent memory.
In support of the first amendment, freedom of expression, and creative license, Hip-Hop artists include Big Boi, Boots Riley, Killer Mike, Pharoahe Monch, and T.I. filed a brief (essentially a written argument presented to a court in an effort to appeal a previous ruling) with the United States Supreme Court, arguing that Bell’s entire future could potentially be ruined because of his decision to express himself through Rap. While the Court likely won’t be making a decision about hearing the case until February, the amount of effort being exerted in Bell’s behalf is noteworthy on its own. In the brief, references are made to other artists, both in and out of Hip-Hop, who have included violent or “threatening” lyrics in their music in an effort to illustrate the art form’s long history of being a place to safely express dark and sinister emotions without ever acting upon them. For example, Eminem’s “Kim,” Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone,” and Nas’ “Ether” are among those mentioned and many of those who signed the brief, including Killer Mike (born Michael Render), are arguing that above all else, racism and ignorance are to blame for the decision made against Bell.
“Anyone who is learned in law is capable of separating art and lyrics, whether you agree with them or not, and actual human behavior. I think the courts understand it when it’s Johnny Cash. I think they understand it when it’s Robert Nesta Marley,” Render tells the New York Times. In essence, the legal brief is based on the argument that the New Orleans circuit court in question “denies First Amendment protections to Rap music, arguably the most influential musical genre of the last 50 years. Using Rap as his voice of protest, Taylor Bell recorded a song calling attention to serious problems facing students at his school.” Furthermore, “the government punished a young man for his art – and, more disturbing, for the musical genre by which he chose to express himself.” The legal brief goes into a detailed account of Hip-Hop’s extensive history as a vehicle for political and social expression, with an excerpt included herein, below.
The Supreme Court is now on its Winter break, and won’t be returning to work until mid-January. Until then, Heads have the opportunity to chime in about this issue, one that could very well lead to Rap being demonized in the highest court in the land. What do you think should be done regarding Bell’s case? You can hear the song in question, “PSK da Truth,” below.