Judicial System Considers Rap Less Than Art, Killer Mike Argues

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Killer Mike and several scholars have coauthored an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of rapper and former Mississippi high school student Taylor Bell. The case, known as Bell vs. Itawamba County School Board, centers on whether the student’s 1st Amendment rights were violated when he was penalized for rapping about school coaches’ alleged harassment of fellow students. Further, Killer Mike and his coauthors pointed to the case as typical of broader trends in the judicial system.

In December 2010, the brief details, several female students told Taylor Bell, who raps as T-Bizzle, that two high school coaches had repeatedly harassed them and their peers. Bell condemned their behavior in a song, recorded it, and posted it online as “PSK Da Truth”. Shortly thereafter, the school suspended and ultimately transferred Bell on the grounds that his lyrics threatened violence against the coaches.

Bell and his mother filed suit, arguing that Bell’s 1st Amendment rights were trampled. An appellate court later rejected Bell’s challenge, taking issue in part with his grammar. However, the new, celebrity-endorsed brief has been filed alongside a petition to the Supreme Court, which will decide to hear the case or to pass, thereby affirming the lower court’s decision.

The brief, publicized by the New York Times and Rolling Stone, argues that Bell’s punishment and the court’s ruling is in fact typical of the judicial system’s apparent regard for rap as something less than art.

Academics Erik Nielson and Charis Kubrin, who coauthored the brief alongside Killer Mike, have written extensively about cases in which rappers’ music and videos are cited as evidence in criminal proceedings, or in which, like Bell’s case, the act of rapping itself elicits punishment. They’ve identified dozens of cases in which lyrics are presented as admissions of guilt. Other times, rap is presented to juries without proper context, they’ve argued, in deliberate efforts to undermine defendants’ credibility. And the tactic often appears intended to exploit jurors’ latent bias against young men of color. (Earlier this year, I interviewed Nielson for an article about a pattern of similar prosecutorial behavior in Bay Area criminal trials: “Rap’s Poetic License: Revoked.“)

Nielson and Kubrin, in addition to writing on the topic, have appeared as expert witnesses in many cases to refute the narrow, often racially-charged interpretation of rap by prosecutors in criminal proceedings.

Their work includes the scholarly article “Rap on Trial,” and op-eds in many major publications, such as the Times. Nielson and Killer Mike, meanwhile, coauthored an article in USA Today late last year.

As for Bell’s case, the brief concludes, “If our judicial system allows these stereotypes to go unchallenged, justice will continue to be elusive for those Americans most in need of a voice—a voice that rap music has given them.”