The U.S. Supreme Court will soon announce whether they will consider overturning the conviction of a young rapper who was sentenced to two years in prison forthreatening police officers in a song. While the song is clearly offensive andprovocative, the question is whether it is art, protected by the First Amendment, orsomething more sinister.
At the heart of the case is the cultural context of rap music. I’m way outside of the demographic that listens to rap, and I don’t know much about it. That is why I found the amicus briefs filed in the Supreme Court case so interesting. One brief, filed by a group of rappers, including Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, and Meek Mill, along with a number of music and cultural scholars, gives the Supreme Court justices an education in hip-hop and rap. Google “Jamal Knox Supreme Court” to read the briefs. They’re fascinating.
In 2012, Jamal Knox, a teenaged rapper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who uses the stage name Mayhem Mal, was arrested on multiple charges after a routine traffic stop. Months later, he wrote and recorded a song titled “F**k the Police” in which he mentioned the two police officers who had arrested him by name and talked about taking revenge against them. He was convicted of making a terroristic threat in the song.
Knox’s song was clearly an homage to N.W.A.’s iconic song of the same name, that came out in 1988 and gave voice to the frustration and resentment felt by minority communities in response to aggressive, militaristic tactics employed by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1980s. That song helped propel the group to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The U.S. Constitution protects free speech, even if that speech is offensive, controversial, or provocative. However, there are a few exceptions to that protection, including defamation, obscenity, or when speech constitutes a “true threat.”
One issue in the Knox case is whether a “reasonable listener” would consider the lyrics of his song to be a “true threat.” The rappers’ amicus brief notes that while the rhetoric in rap music can be hyperbolic and violent, it is not intended to be taken literally. A “reasonable listener” who understands rap music would know that.
Unfortunately, the prosecutors and judges in Knox’s case didn’t, and took his words literally.
After the 1992 acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King, Ice Cube, a former member of N.W.A., recorded a song that identified two of the police officers in the King case by name and described “in graphic detail” the revenge he fantasized taking against them.
But, as the amicus brief notes, “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 heard an artist protesting injustice.” The same, they argue, can be said of Knox.
Rap music isn’t the only genre with violent themes. Johnny Cash sang about killing a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” In “Run for Your Life,” the Beatles threaten an unnamed girlfriend, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.”
Yet the response to the violent imagery in rap music is very different from that in other genres. Researchers, including social psychologist Carrie Fried, showed identical sets of violent lyrics to different groups of people. The groups were then told the lyrics were from either a rap or a country song. “The responses were significantly more negative when the lyrics were represented as rap, demonstrating that the same lyrical passage that was viewed as acceptable in a country song was considered dangerous and offensive when identified as a rap song.”
The amicus brief goes on, “All of this research reveals that racial stereotypes can play a significant role in our perceptions of rap music and the people who create it.
Without the proper safeguards, these stereotypes may blind us to the artistic intentions of young men like Jamal Knox.” The Supreme Court, if it takes up Knox’s case, could resolve differences in how lower courts have defined “true threat.” Everyone should care when the courts limit freedom of speech, especially if those limits are based on ignorance, incorrect cultural assumptions, or racial stereotyping.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.