Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Killer Mike and other high-profile hip-hop artists have banded together with music scholars to defend rapper Jamal Knox’s explicit lyrics, which landed him in jail, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an amicus brief filed Wednesday, the group urged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review a conviction Knox, known as Mayhem Mal, received for a song that prosecutors argued was a terroristic threat against police officers.
“The poetic nature of rap lyrics requires analysis of the multi-layered meanings attributable to such lyrics, viewed through the lens of the intended audience,” the group said.
They urged the court to “view rap music, through which the alleged threats in this case were purportedly communicated, as not only a form of artistic expression but as political expression that falls well within the scope of activity protected by the First Amendment.”
Grammy-winner Killer Mike and African-American literature professor Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond led the petition.
The court filing describes hip-hop and rap’s inherent relationship with racial injustice.
“It illustrates how a person unfamiliar with what today is the nation’s most dominant musical genre ... may mistakenly interpret a rap song as a true threat of violence and may falsely conclude a rapper intended to convey a true threat of violence when he did not,” the group wrote.
The petition also details a history of police injustices against black people, including police harassment and violence and disproportionate incarceration rates. It also lists a number of famous rappers and songs that address the frustrations stemming from marginalization and racial injustices, linking N.W.A.’s infamous song “Fuck tha Police” to the song that got Knox sentenced.
Citing the inspiration behind the N.W.A. song, the group noted that rappers were speaking to the experience of police “routinely” harassing, arresting and beating “black and brown men in particular.”
“Already weakened by joblessness and drug addiction, these communities watched in horror as newly militarized police departments turned weapons of war—helicopters, armored vehicles, and machine guns—on their own citizens,” they said.
N.W.A gave full, unapologetic voice to that frustration with “Fuck tha Police,” beginning with the opening lines: “Fuck the police, comin’ straight from the underground / a young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown.
In 2012, Knox was arrested on gun and drug charges in Pittsburgh. After the arrest, while the charges against him were pending, Knox and fellow rapper Rashee Beasley recorded and posted to the internet an explicit song which named the officers involved in the arrest. A video of the song included a montage of police officers as well as photos of black men apparently injured by officers.
The song included these lyrics: “Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good. Pullin’ your Glock out ’cause I live in the hood.”
After police discovered the song, Knox and Beasley were arrested and charged with making terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses with their song. On those charges, Knox was sentenced to two to six years of incarceration while Beasley was sentenced to one to three years.
In an interview with The New York Times, Killer Mike said that rap music is treated differently in court because of prejudice against black people.
“Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both,” the rapper told the Times. “And I can tell you that the lyrics are dark and brutal when Johnny Cash describes shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and when Ice Cube rapped about a drive-by shooting early in his career.”
Knox appealed to have his sentencing overturned, arguing that the lyrics were protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Knox’s attorney also argued that the song was “artistic” and that the rappers intended no real harm against the officers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at the time.
But in August 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against Knox’s appeal, noting that it found Knox and Beasley’s lyrics to be a “true threat” and therefore not protected by the Constitution.
In Wednesday’s petition, the rappers and scholars said that rap music is a means for many people of color to express their own inner turmoil and frustrations and, by “criminalizing” rap lyrics, the court risks “silencing many Americans.”
“Jamal Knox’s story is not unique. Across the country, countless young people—often those of color—have found a voice in rap music, too. For some, it also has offered a legitimate career path, one leading away from the violence and despair so frequently chronicled in rap lyrics,” the group said. “If we criminalize those lyrics, we risk silencing many Americans already struggling to be heard.”