Hip-Hop at the Supreme Court

music microphone

Hip-hop artist Jasmal Knox (otherwise known as “Mayhem Mal”) was convicted in 2014 to two-years in prison, for anti-police lyrical content interpreted as threatening and intimidating. The artist holds that his lyrics were metaphorical rather than literal, and were an expression of his musical persona (not intentional, directed action). Mr. Knox argues that his first-amendment rights to free speech have been violated, and the legal issue concerns whether hip hop lyrics can legally qualify as a threat.

A group of fairly prominent hip hop stars (including Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Fat Joe, and Killer Mike) have filed an amicus curiae brief in defense of Knox’s content, deeming his music a “work of poetry […] not intended to be taken literally“. The artists contend that the Trial Court was “deeply unaware of popular music generally and rap music specifically“. According to the musicians, anti-cop lyrics have provided an important outlet for marginalized communities to highlight injustice in societal institutions. The musicians also questioned whether black artists are provided the same creative liberties as other groups (for example outlaw country ballads) or whether the excessive focus on hip-hop serves as another form of racial profiling.

People of African descent are disproportionately targeted and investigated at police stops across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The BC Civil Liberties Association has noted that racial profiling is not an effective law enforcement tool, since samples are too small to have any predictive value. Racial profiling is a product and tool of discrimination, and is embedded in inferences and conclusions of national security agencies.

For decades, African-Americans have spoken truth to power. With the civil rights movement, racial pride, and ethnic cohesion campaigns, American institutions have taken time to realize the necessity of progressive politics based on equity, diversity, and intersectionality. However, despite important achievements in civil rights, African-Americans continue to be treated as second-class citizens (captured perhaps most evocatively in #BlackLivesMatter and the frequency of police shootings). While Mr. Knox’s lyrics may give rise to sentiments of discomfort and unease, he is merely holding a mirror to society to the realities of racialization, discrimination, and liminality for African-Americans across the country.

This post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.