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Chance The Rapper, Killer Mike, Meek Mill & More File Supreme Court Brief On Rap Lyrics
"Lyrics in music are protected as free speech. However, the notion that this bedrock principle would depend on the genre is an alarming one, especially for those in the world of rap and hip-hop." -Conversations In Advocacy #48
The 2012 arrest and subsequent trial of Jamal Knox, a black artist who raps under the name Mayhem Mal, stirred up the First Amendment issue of freedom of speech in rap and hip-hop. In Knox' case, his lyrics included what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined to threats toward police officers that weren't protected by free speech.
"This is a work of poetry," reads the response in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court this week. "It is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand."
With this collective effort, proliferating this baseline knowledge of rap is now seeing a new level of action and support. The group of artists behind it includes Chance The Rapper, Killer Mike, Yo Gotti, 21 Savage, Fat Joe and others, who filed the brief to serve as, "A primer on rap music and hip-hop."
The brief aims to educate Supreme Court justices, who average age is approximately 66, about the culture of the genre, focusing on the respect and perspective afforded to other genres that rap is also due.
"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," the brief reads, "may mistakenly interpret a rap song as a true threat of violence."
Killer Mike, a well-respected and GRAMMY-winning rapper and activist, contextualized the special treatment of rap lyrics as racially motivated.
"Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both," he said. "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."
"It’s no different from stop and frisk,” he continued. “It’s another form of racial profiling."
The brief encourages the court to hear the appeal of Knox based on his First Amendment rights, while also working "to put rap music, which is a heavily stigmatized form of expression associated with negative stereotypes and often subject to misinterpretation, in the context of the history and conventions of the genre."
Hip-hop not only holds court as the most popular genre amongst consumers, but its popularity only continues to grow. The brief hopes to shape a more conscious future surrounding the genre. One way it contextualizes its culture is by pointing to past examples of personal expression perceived as real threats against authority, most notably with Ice-T's controversial 1992 song, "Cop Killer."
The brief reminds its readers, "Ice-T defended himself, saying, 'I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. . . If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.'"
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