If hip-hop was always taken at face value, rapper Killer Mike of Run the Jewels might be convicted for his name alone. But that’s not how our justice system works, right?
Wrong, according to a new op-ed co-written by Killer Mike called “Rap’s poetic (In)justice,” chronicling America’s many criminal trials in which rap lyrics have been used as evidence. The latest and highest level of which, Elonis v. U.S., to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday.
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Killer Mike’s partner on the piece is assistant professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Richmond Erik Nielson, who also co-authored an amicus brief filed in Elonis v. U.S. In that case, Anthony Elonis was sentences to nearly four years in prison for posting violent violent rap lyrics to Facebook and other social media in 2010 about killing his estranged wife, shooting up a kindergarten class and attacking an FBI agent. He has cited Eminem as an artistic influence, chalking his words up to creative self-expression but federal prosecutors did not see it that way.
Killer Mike and Nielson write that by choosing the Elonis case to settle a relatively narrow legal question of “true threats” jurisprudence, the Supreme Court justices “have stumbled into a national debate about the expanding prosecution of rap music, which raises major concerns about the role of art and free speech in the justice system, as well as the commonly-held view that hip-hop culture is a threat to society.”
The two cite hundreds of cases nationwide that have cited rap lyrics as evidence of a defendant’s criminal behavior, accepting it all as true autobiography and ignoring the genre’s common use of metaphor and hyperbole.
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“No other fictional form — musical, literary or cinematic — is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous,” they write.
Instead, the genre is often an alternative to violent gang culture, they continue, quoting Ice-T: “If I hadn’t had a chance to rap, I’d either be dead or in jail.”
Killer Mike has been especially outspoken among the most recent issues of lethal violence brought upon unarmed black teenagers, naming Jordan Davis and Michael Brown in the essay with criticisms to coverage of both that have characterized their interest in hip-hop as any reason for their deaths.
“It is true that hip-hop has been scarred by violence,” Killer Mike and Nielson write. “Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., for example, two of rap’s most important and influential artists, were killed in the prime of their careers. But for each instance of violence, there are countless examples of lives saved or made stronger. Trust us on this: The kids spending hours per day writing rap songs aren’t a threat to society; they are often trying to escape the threats from society.”
Read the full op-ed here.