Killer Mike Is Taking The Fight To The Supreme Court To Protect Freedom Of Speech In Rap Music
In late 2015, Hip-Hop made its way to the steps of the Supreme Court when Killer Mike and others threw their support behind a teenager whose decision to pen a Rap song about goings-on at his high school got him suspended, permanently staining his academic record. Taylor Bell, a Mississippi student whose 2010 song referenced an ongoing scandal on his campus involving allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of a school sports official, is now making judicial history in the case of Bell v. Itawamba County School Board – even though the inherent arguments within the case aren’t entirely new. Framed atop the skeleton of a classic take on free speech, Bell’s case has taken on more complex characteristics involving race and the perception of Rap music, particularly as it relates to how other genres of music have been treated in similar cases in the past. As Ambrosia for Heads reported in December, Killer Mike, Big Boi, Pharoahe Monch, and T.I. were among those “who submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in an effort to get the Court’s support on Bell’s side. 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.”
When the brief was filed, it was made clear that a decision in the case likely would not happen until February, when the Court was back in session following their annual holiday break. As the month creeps towards its final week, pressure continues to mount as all parties involved await news with bated breath, and Render – known for his outspoken and politically charged appearances outside of the booth – is not letting the judicial system off easy. Yesterday (February 18), he penned an op-ed for CNN in which he outlined why Bell’s case must be heard and he minced no words about his feelings on what’s really driving the furor behind Bell’s lyrics. In “Free Speech – unless it’s Rap?” he chastises school officials in their treatment of Bell, explaining their wrongdoing in having “suspended Bell, forcing him to attend an ‘alternative’ school for six weeks. During the disciplinary process, administrators never notified police. Prior to the incident, Render explains, Bell had a nearly spotless record and what made his punishment extreme was that Bell “recorded the song away from school during winter break, and he never played it or performed it on campus.” However, he says the real issue at hand here is not whether Bell did anything “wrong,” but the way in which he did it. “Bell wasn’t being punished for making threats against school employees, even if that was the school’s justification,” Render writes. “Instead, he was being punished for using the wrong art form, Rap music, as his voice of protest.”
After providing a brief history of Rap music’s role in providing a voice to the voiceless, he puts forth some salient arguments about the hypocrisy and blatant racism he sees in how Bell’s rap was treated. On the violent language in Bell’s lyrics Render writes, “in doing so he is following a long line of platinum-selling rappers – including Ice Cube, Eminem, Nas and Jay Z – who have built careers and made millions doing the same thing.” Render is quick to point out that it isn’t just artists making Rap music who utilize aggressive and threatening content. “[W]e don’t assume that Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King or Johnny Cash carry out the (sometimes extreme) violence depicted in their art – because we acknowledge it as art,” he writes. And yet, there is a certain allowance afforded to well known or non-Black artists in our society which is not bestowed upon others, “particularly in the criminal justice system, where amateur rappers, almost always young men of color who lack the name recognition (and bank accounts) of their professional counterparts, are routinely prosecuted for their music.”
One would assume then, that if Bell’s song was indeed laden with threats so bold that he deserved a swift and un-investigated cause for suspension, that school officials and others would have responded with greater fear. But, as Render points out, no such formal actions were taken; police were never called, a threat warning was never sent to parents, and so forth. Instead, Render argues, what’s at play here is that “people were offended by Bell’s brazen attempt to stand up for his fellow students” when he included a threat to the coach allegedly sexually assaulting students in his song. And yet, despite what seems to be yet another example of the all-powerful arm of the government wielding its powers unjustly, Render remains hopeful. As it turns out, the high school in question has been on the hot seat for civil rights violations in the past. “In 2010, the school made headlines for canceling a prom rather than allowing two lesbian students to attend as a couple. One of the young women, Constance McMillen, took the school to court to defend her First Amendment rights, and she won,” he explains. “Now it’s Taylor Bell’s turn.”
An official hearing date for Bell’s case has yet to be announced, but it’s possible Render and other key figures in Hip-Hop may appear alongside Bell when the time comes.