How the Fear of Black Bodies Could Set a Scary Precedent for Rap Lyrics at the Supreme Court

Late last year, the rappers Killer Mike, T.I., and Big Boi filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, hoping to convince the highest court in the country to hear the case of Taylor Bell. A Mississippi high school student, Bell was suspended for posting a song to YouTube in which he lashed out at two gym teachers accused of sexually harassing female students. He sued the school district on First Amendment grounds, making it all the way to the US Court of Appeals, the second-highest court in the country. The court upheld the punishment, though the decision was divided. 

At the core of this particular legal issue is the question of whether or not violent rap lyrics are protected speech in a school environment. We like to think of the Bill of Rights as a blanket decree guaranteeing inalienable protection, but our speech as Americans is actually unprotected in several circumstances. And depending on whether the court hears the case — and what they decide if they do — a precedent could be set for taking rap lyrics as a “true threat,” a type of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment. Killer Mike (whose legal name is Michael Render) and the other MCs who filed the brief argue that the song’s violent lyrics are part of a tradition of metaphor and figurative imagery in hip-hop, and shouldn’t be taken literally.

You can see why Render would find such a decision problematic. Despite his personal and pro-Bernie Sanders campaigning and politically charged songs like “Reagan,” his biggest hits are decidedly more in line with gangsta rap tropes, and feature plenty of violent threats. Any sane, rational person who has listened to Render speak could easily decipher the different between his art and his life. But the court has not always proved to be rational. In 2008, a man named Vonte Skinner was convicted of attempted murder in New Jersey; during the trial, the prosecutor read 13 pages of violent lyrics Skinner had written. Despite shaky evidence and witnesses, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. It would have set a terrifying precedent, had the New Jersey Supreme Court not overturned the conviction, stating that “the violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics authored by defendant constitute highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged.”

At the core of the “rap lyrics as evidence” argument is the assessment of said lyrics as a “true threat,” describing actions one could reasonably believe to be imminent. Because the institution at the center of the case is a school, there are more restrictions on the student’s speech, and the court has granted schools leeway in the form of language open to interpretation. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the court held that on-campus speech could be punished if it was “reasonable” to expect it to cause a disruption, and in Morse v. Frederick, held the same could be done with off-campus speech using similar language.

There are a couple of reasons why it’s ridiculous to think of Taylor Bell’s lyrics as a “true threat.” First of all, it’s ludicrous to take rap lyrics at face value, when we certainly don’t do so with other art forms, like acting. In an interview with The New Yorker, Render posited this parallel: “My wife loves Leonardo DiCaprio. She doesn’t think Leonardo DiCaprio is a slave-owning racist. She understands that’s just a role in a movie he plays.”

And what about country music? Nobody took David Allan Coe’s racist bile as true threats against black people. Or Johnny Cash’s outlaw tales. Varg Vikernes actually murdered people, but we’re not convicting metalheads with their lyrics as evidence. “I think that they see that this treatment of art is only reserved for one section of artists,” Render told TNY. “And if that’s the case, you have to say, why? Why rap music?”

But it goes beyond just rap; in the song “Kim,” Eminem meticulously detailed several ways in which he might murder his ex-wife and her boyfriend, then dispose of their bodies. Suburban moms may have been terrified by the vulgar lyrics of their kids’ favorite rapper, but no one ever considered Slim Shady’s threats to be true. He never lost custody of his child. Nor should he have, at least on the grounds of his song lyrics! With this in mind, arguments that try to defend the school’s decision by protesting that directors, country stars, or even other rappers are trafficking in fiction, while Taylor Bell’s threats ring true, come off sounding completely asinine.

But one thing they serve to do is expose the real impetus for proceedings such as this. It’s not the lyrics, or even the music, that is really scary to school administrators, judges, or anyone else. It’s black men. Young, strong, black men. That fear is what drives much of the brutality that’s expressed upon black bodies. The fear that those same rippling muscles and strong backs that were selectively bred to work the fields will turn against them, and they’ll feel the wrath of 400 years of subjugation and oppression. It’s why #BlackLivesMatter exists — because we live in a society where a 17-year-old boy looks like “a demon” or a 12-year-old in a park with a toy looks like an imminent threat. This doesn’t seem outrageous to white people in power, because for many, deep down, they understand Darren Wilson’s fear. They look at Trayvon Martin in a hoodie, and they see what George Zimmerman saw.

That fear can manifest in more innocuous ways, like crossing the street or clutching your purse. But Taylor Bell’s story is scarier, because it’s happening in the highest courts in our country, with the ability to set a disturbing precedent upon which that fear becomes codified as part of our laws. To the white majority, it’s understandable that people would be scared of black men. So we tolerate it. It recalls a Dick Gregory speech at the beginning of Killer Mike’s “Don’t Die,” from his 2012 LP R.A.P. Music:

How come, with the thousands of black cops in America, you never pick up the paper, or turn on TV or the news, and see white folk cryin’ because this black cop shot my little one in the back of the head, because he thought the cell phone was a gun? How come you don’t see that? You think black cops are…more spiritual? No. They got enough sense to know that white folks ain’t gon’ tolerate it. The only reason they do to us what they do is because we tolerate it.