Today, the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear an appeal from Taylor Bell, a Mississippi high school student who was disciplined in 2011 for a rap song that he posted on Facebook and YouTube. When Bell was a senior in high school, female students at his school accused a pair of coaches of sexual harassment and groping. Bell made a song about those charges, and he included a line that the school heard as a violent threat against the coaches: “Looking down girls’ shirts, drool running down your mouth / Going to get a pistol down your mouth.” Bell recorded the song off of school property, during Christmas vacation, but the school still disciplined him. Bell and his mother filed a lawsuit to get his school record expunged. (They say they did it to prove a point; they only asked for a dollar.) The U.S. Court of Appeals declined to hear an appeal in Bell’s case, but now Bell has taken it all the way to the Supreme Court, and a trio of big-name rappers has his back.
As The New York Times reports, Killer Mike, Big Boi, T.I., Pharoahe Monch, Boots Riley, and others signed an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to hear Bell’s appeal. The brief explains the context of rap lyrics, pointing out that they aren’t generally meant to be taken literally. The brief points out, for the justices’ sake, that Killer Mike has never actually killed anyone, and Mike himself writes, “I see a kid who saw wrong happening and was outraged about it. He wrote a poem about it over a beat.”
Mike also writes, “Anyone who is learned in law is capable of separating art and lyrics, whether you agree with them or not, and actual human behavior. I think the courts understand it when it’s Johnny Cash. I think they understand it when it’s Robert Nesta Marley,” pointing out that nobody took the violence in Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” or Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” literally.
It’s a longshot that the Supreme Court will actually hear this case, but let’s all pause and savor the image of Killer Kill from the Ville testifying in front of the Supreme Court.