Killer Mike, Big Boi and T.I. are among the rappers who signed an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court on behalf of a student who was suspended from his high school for recording a song that alleged two coaches of sexual misconduct toward female students. Taylor Bell, who raps under the name T-Bizzle, was kicked out of his Fulton, Mississippi high school in 2011 after school officials deemed that his song threatened the coaches with gun-related violence. The suspension sparked a First Amendment case that has climbed up the various appeals courts to the Supreme Court, who will decide whether to hear the case, the New York Times reports.
The three Atlanta-area rappers will be on hand to give the Supreme Court justices a crash course in hip-hop, since the justice’s musical tastes careen toward opera. In a brief sent to the Supreme Court prior to the hearing, Killer Mike – who prefaced the justices, “It probably is worth noting that he has never actually killed anyone” – wrote that hip-hop is the only musical genre that is persecuted for its violent imagery. The Run the Jewels rapper cited Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”) and Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” as examples of violence in music that weren’t treated with the same scrutiny as rap lyrics.
“I see a kid who saw wrong happening and was outraged about it,” Killer Mike said of Bell’s song. “He wrote a poem about it over a beat.” The brief added, “Following a long line of rappers before him. Bell saw an opportunity to confront injustice.” After Bell’s suspension, the student and his mother sued the school in an effort to have his record expunged. The 16-member panel of the New Orleans court of appeals heard Bell’s case and, despite a divided opinion, ultimately rejected his appeal, citing “incredibly profane and vulgar” lyrics.
The appeals court’s decision came despite the fact that Bell’s song was never proven false –female students provided sworn affidavits detailing the coaches’ sexual misconduct – as well as the fact that Bell recorded the track outside of school, thus he was punished for something he did in his own free time. The Supreme Court will decide in February whether to hear Bell’s case.
Killer Mike has long examined how rap lyrics are twisted and skewed in the judicial system: In December 2014, the Run the Jewels rapper penned an op-ed in defense of Anthony Elonis, who was sentenced to 44 months in prison after rap lyrics he posted on social media were admitted as incriminating evidence at trial.
Killer Mike argued there is a “double standard” with rap lyrics, since, despite the fact that they are treated as an art form and therefore protected by the First Amendment, they are also admissible in court. The Elonis case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, with Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” heavily cited during the proceedings.
“This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it,” Justice Samuel Alito said at the time. “You put it in rhyme and you put some stuff about the Internet on it and you say, ‘I’m an aspiring rap artist.’ And so then you are free from prosecution.” In the Elonis case, the Supreme Court focused on context, since rap lyrics in a song inherently seem less threatening than when posted on Facebook.