Last December, Killer Mike and author Erik Nielson teamed to pen an op-ed examining how the criminal justice system often employs rap lyrics as a means to convict suspects. The Run the Jewels rapper’s first column focused on the case of Anthony Elonis, and now in their latest op-ed for Vox that examines hip-hop’s “poetic (in)justice,” Killer Mike and Nielson have turned their attention to McKinley “Mac” Phipps, a former No Limit rapper who was found guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of a teenage fan at one of Mac’s shows.
Phipps was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the February 2000 shooting death in New Orleans. However, at Mac’s trial, the prosecutor manipulated the lyrics from a pair of the rapper’s songs and used that as evidence to show the jury that Mac had committed the crime. On top of that, a Huffington Post investigation into Mac’s case alleges that the trial’s key witness was “threatened” to finger Phipps as the shooter, while other witnesses who reiterated Phipps’ innocence were “intimidated or outright ignored by investigators.”
“With no physical evidence connecting Phipps to the crime, multiple eyewitnesses identifying a different shooter, and even a confession to the crime by another man, the prosecutor went after Phipps’ art, relying on a tactic that dates back to the Jim Crow South: he punished black speech,” writes Nielson and Killer Mike, who co-penned the op-ed under his birth name Michael Render.
“If we let this stand, what you’re going to see is that tool is going to be used to wipe out an entire potential generation of [artists] out of our community,” Killer Mike said in a statement regarding the criminal justice system’s frequently citing rap lyrics at trial. “It becomes a danger to you … because it just becomes another tool that prosecutors can now use to … strip you of your freedom of speech, which is guaranteed to every American, so we must stand with artists like Mac.”
In another example that highlights both the onus on rappers and a double standard in music, Killer Mike writes about how he is often labeled as a criminal simply because of the “Killer” in his moniker, even though his alias means he “metaphorically kills microphones with his lyrics.” However, no one ever associates rock band the Killers as being a pack of assassins because they aren’t “a 6-foot-3 black guy.”
“It is a fear McKinley Phipps knows all too well, having spent almost 15 years in a cell, in large part because his art was put on trial,” the rapper and author write in conclusion. “But it is hardly a surprise that the young men of color who have used rap music to challenge America’s unjust justice system are the ones who are finding their words criminalized and their voices silenced. It’s a steep price to pay for art — but it’s a price rappers have been paying for years and, unfortunately, will continue to pay for years to come.”