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Killer Mike, Big Boi, and TI Argue Rap Is Not a Crime in Supreme Court Brief

The hip-hop artists have filed a brief supporting a case fighting the criminalization of rap music and through it the suppression of black Americans' speech.
Le rappeur Killer Mike, qui n'a jamais tué personne. (Photo de Rich Fury/AP)

Should the state prosecute Eminem for verbally imagining slitting his ex-wife's throat in the rap song Kim, or take Ice Cube's lyrics about shooting an LA cop in the face in We Had to Tear this Mothafucka Up as true intent to commit a crime? And should hip-hop or any lyrics in general be protected by the First Amendment or should they be subject to as much scrutiny as other potential threats made on social media or elsewhere?


These are the kinds of questions being raised in a prospective US Supreme Court case that a cadre of hip hop stars, including Killer Mike, TI, and Big Boi, are throwing their weight behind. On Monday, the rappers, along with other artists and professors, filed a brief to support 22-year-old Taylor "T-Bizzle" Bell, who was suspended from his Mississippi high school in 2011 and charged with harassment and intimidation over a rap song he posted online.

"The Government punished a young man for his art—and, more disturbing, for the musical genre by which he chose to express himself," the artists argued in the brief.

Bell, an aspiring rap artist, penned PSK da Truth, originally released as "P.S. Koaches The Truth Need to be Told," in late 2010 to expose two high school coaches who allegedly sexually harassed four female students at Itawamba Agricultural High School, where he was also studying at the time.

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"Looking down girls' shirts / Drool running down your mouth/ You fucking with the wrong one / Going to get a pistol down your mouth," Bell wrote of the coaches in the song he later posted to YouTube and Facebook.

School officials interpreted the lyrics as threatening and suspended Bell in 2011 before transferring him to an "alternative" school temporarily until the end of the semester. The decision prompted the then-18-year-old and his mother, Dora Bell, to file a First Amendment challenge against the school's board, principal, and superintendant. Bell sought to clear his record, and said he was only suing for damages of $1 because the case was not about money, but rather about exposing the alleged misconduct of the coaches, which later turned into a First Amendment issue.


The case wound up before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in August that the school did not violate Bell's right to free speech, but rather took reasonable action after deeming the song to be "threatening, harassing, and intimidating the teachers." The court also found Bell created "substantial disruption" at the school.

Bell and his lawyers are now petitioning the Supreme Court to take a look at the case. The nine justices, who take on roughly 100 of the more than 7,000 cases sent to the docket annually, will likely decide whether to hear the case in February, according to the New York Times.

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The case received serious press this week after famed hip-hop artists filed the amici curiae — or friends of the court — brief. In it, the rappers argued that rap "most certainly is art" and that "like all poets, rappers privilege figurative language and employ a full range of literary devices."

"In attempting to censor Bell's artistic expression, the school, and later the Fifth Circuit, essentially took aim at rap music, a sophisticated form of poetry that has served as an important vehicle for social commentary and political protest, particularly among young men and women of color," the brief read.

It added that criminalizing hip-hop music "perpetuates enduring stereotypes about the inherent criminality of young men of color, the primary producers of rap music."

The brief also notes that one of the signatories, Killer Mike, who has appeared on a Grammy Award-winning rap album, "has never actually killed anyone." The artist is a well-known activist who has made regular appearances alongside populist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the stump in support of social and racial equality.

Likewise, the rappers argued that Bell should not be any more liable for his words than Eric Clapton and Bob Marley were when they sang of killing police in their respective recordings of I Shot the Sheriff.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields