The often-coarse lyrics in rap music have increasingly been the target of legal battles, which is why a cadre of some of today’s most popular rappers — including Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, Fat Joe, 21 Savage and Chance the Rapper — alongside several industry professionals and academics, filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The brief encourages the court to hear the appeal of Jamal Knox, a Pennsylvania rapper known as Mayhem Mal, who went to prison for threatening two police officers in a song. It also serves as “a primer on rap music and hip-hop” to educate the Supreme Court justices, who range in age from 51 to 85, on the genre.
Knox was “found guilty of making terroristic threats and witness intimidation for writing and performing a 2012 song titled ‘F — the Police.’ According to the opinion, the song named and threatened two officers, Daniel Zeltner and Michael Kosko, and a music video for the song also featured photos of them,” The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu wrote in August 2018, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Knox’s conviction, arguing the song and its threats weren’t protected speech under the First Amendment.
The brief’s purpose, they wrote, is “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."
“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 may mistakenly interpret a rap song as a true threat of violence,” it continued.
The brief goes on to trace the history of rap music, beginning with its origins in the 1970s. It specifically examines other songs that include fictional threats against police officers, such as Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothaf---a Up.”
“Nobody heard the lyrics and believed that O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube’s given name) intended to carry out the fantasies of his musical persona,” they wrote.
It also examined Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” “Ice-T defended himself, saying, ‘I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain’t never killed no cop. . . . If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut,’” wrote the brief’s authors.
Last, it examined the song in question: “In short, this is a work of poetry. It is told from the perspective of two invented characters in the style of rap music, which is (in) famous for its exaggerated, sometimes violent rhetoric, and which uses language in a variety of complex ways. It is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Killer Mike further elaborated: “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.”
“It’s no different from stop and frisk,” he said. “It’s another form of racial profiling."