Rappers Might Start Going To Jail Because Of Their Lyrics
Rap music is often an art that imitates life. However, there appear to be new legal lines surrounding that freedom of expression. Today, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Jamal Knox v. Commonwealth Of Pennsylvania. That case surrounds Cox, who is a Pittsburgh rapper also known as Mayhem Mal, who was charged with making terroristic threats and witness intimidation for his 2012 song “F*ck The Police.” The song was recorded when the creator was 19 years old. In 2014, Mayhem Mal was sentenced to 2-6 years after being convicted of those charged, which relate to his lyrics and their using the names of specific Pittsburgh Police Department officers. A defense attorney cited the First Amendment in search of an appeal on the ruling. However, the verdict was upheld by the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court. By refusing to consider the case, the U.S. Supreme Court has left the door wide open for other states to begin prosecuting artists for the lyrical content of their songs.
This damning news comes after a long and complicated history surrounding the use of Rap lyrics in court. Previously, those lyrics were protected by Freedom Of Speech found in the First Amendment. Other artists have done the same thing that landed Mayhem Mal behind bars. On the platinum Death Certificate, Ice Cube’s lyrics threatened then-LAPD Commissioner Daryl Gates on “The Wrong Ni**a To F*ck With.” “Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic / I gotta have it, to peel his cap backwards / I hope he wear a vest too, and his best blue / Goin’ up against the Zulu / Break his spine like a jellyfish / Kick his ass ’til I’m smellin’ sh*t / Off wit’ the head, off wit’ the head I say,” said Cube, who has become a household name and Hollywood star. Ice Cube, who also wrote the original “F*ck Tha Police” for N.W.A. that Mayhem Mal’s attorneys say their client was emulating 24 years later, was never arrested or prosecuted for his art.
Rap music has other songs that have threatened police and law enforcement officials, some by name. KXNG Crooked called out the police officer responsible for the death of Michael Brown on “Shady CXVPHER,” which has nearly 13 million views. “You die quicker than Darren Wilson walkin’ through Ferguson / Dressed like the Grand Dragon of the Klan / Passin’ ni**as with pants saggin’ / With their hand on a black Magnum,” spit Crooked I in the same video alongside Eminem.
Meanwhile, Tupac Shakur’s debut album, 2Pacalypse Now contains “Soulja’s Story.” That track has lyrics including, “Crack done took a part of my family tree / My mama’s on the sh*t, my daddy split and moms is steady blaming me / Is it my fault, just ’cause I’m a young Black male? / Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin’ crack sales / Only 15 and got problems / Cops on my tail, so I bail ’til I dodge ’em / They finally pull me over and I laugh / ‘Remember Rodney King?’ and I blast on his punk ass.” That song became the subject of legal action when Ronald Ray Howard, a man who shot and killed a Texas Highway Patrol officer, claimed that he had been influenced by Tupac’s music. The officer’s wife later filed a lawsuit against Tupac and his record companies, but his attorneys argued the song was protected against legal liability due to the protections of the First Amendment. The case was ultimately dismissed.
Pac maintained that message on 1993 sequel, “Soulja’s Revenge.” Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Scarface and the Geto Boys specifically condemned Jack Schumacher, a former DEA Agent who allegedly threatened Rap-A-Lot Records founder James “J. Prince” Smith. Another Houston, Texas veteran, K-Rino, listed the names of various police officers and other individuals alleged with the killings of unarmed Black children and men on his 2016 song “Administrative Leave.” Ice-T’s Metal band, Body Count, also famously released “Cop Killer” in 1992. Like Cube, Ice-T has since enjoyed a prominent acting career, and recently appeared in a multi-national car insurance campaign.
In considering the legal arguments of the Knox case, The Harvard Law Review had a different opinion than that upheld by the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court, and attributed the court’s unwillingness to extend First Amendment protection to Knox to a bias against Rap music. “Much of the academic and judicial debate regarding the scope of true threats has turned on the requisite mens rea to separate protected speech from true threats. The Knox court, therefore, took a significant defendant-friendly step in claiming to require a finding of specific intent. However, the Knox court’s contribution in this regard was offset by its participation in a rising trend: Knox joins a series of cases in which Rap — typically Gangsta Rap — is put on trial, stripped of its artistic and political meaning. Although it claimed to examine Knox’s subjective intent, the court ignored the artistic and political dimensions of his song and effectively applied an objective standard by giving undue weight to the listeners’ reactions. The court also relied on the personalization of the lyrics, allowing that factor to play an inappropriately determinative role. Knox demonstrates the need for courts to reconsider the factors weighed in determining subjective intent in order for ‘true threats’ to proscribe only speech that conveys a serious intent to threaten.” The review acknowledges that papers, including professors Charis Kubrin and Erik Nielson’ “Rap On Trial,” recognize a growing phenomenon surrounding these lyrics being used in courts. The two academics’ research has reportedly found that only Rap music is treated this way.
Whereas genres including Folk and Country have songs that include violent, potentially threatening lyrics akin to Mayhem Mal’s work, they are afforded artistic license and are not taken so literally. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh MC closely associated with Jimmy Wopo (who was murdered in 2018) is not given the same consideration.
Professor Andrea Dennis points out that the court did not view Mal’s music video, which depicted police brutality and lynchings at the hand of law enforcement. However, the court did factor in sound effects including sirens, machine guns, and bullhorns, to add to the song’s “threatening” effects. Professor Dennis summarizes, “In short, the court either ignored or misconstrued the artistic and political dimensions of the song to [Mayhem Mal’s] detriment.”
Last month, Killer Mike, Styles P, Chance The Rapper, 21 Savage, and others wrote to the Supreme Court, providing “a primer on Hip-Hop and Rap music.” One excerpt claimed the following: “A person unfamiliar with what today is the nation’s most dominant musical genre or one who hears music through the auditory lens of older genres such as Jazz, Country or Symphony,” they wrote, “may mistakenly interpret a Rap song as a true threat of violence.” Mike told The New York Times during the March brief, “Outlaw Country music is given much more poetic license than Gangster Rap, and I listen to both. And I can tell you that the lyrics are dark and brutal when Johnny Cash describes shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and when Ice Cube rapped about a drive-by shooting early in his career.” The Run The Jewels co-founder whose songs have spoken against political figures added, “It’s no different from stop and frisk…It’s another form of racial profiling.”
Twenty-one years ago, Sacramento, California rapper C-Bo landed in a similar situation for “Deadly Game.” The Til My Casket Drops inclusion was considered a parole violation on grounds similar to Mal’s. The Tupac affiliate was arrested. In 1998, MTV News reported, “Authorities say that C-Bo’s lyrics threaten specific political leaders as well as the police in general, like on the track ‘Deadly Game’ on which C-Bo raps, ‘You better swing, batter, batter swing / ‘Cause once you get your third felony / Yeah, 50 years you gotta bring / It’s a deadly game of baseball / So when they try to pull you over, shoot ’em in the face, y’all.”
For a 1996 sentence, Bo had agreed to cease making music that, according to Complex, was “anti-law enforcement” or promoted a “gang lifestyle.” Following a high-profile campaign, C-Bo was freed under the grounds of Freedom Of Speech.
At present, Jamal Cox remains in custody.