When Words are Perceived to be Weapons

“When it comes to rap, many people fail to recognize the fundamental distinction between artist and art, author and narrator, making it all too easy to assume that gangsta rappers are the criminals they portray in their rhymes.”

Drawing on a history that goes back to the ugly Jim Crow era in the Southern United States following the Civil War, rapper Killer Mike and author Erik Nielson have written their latest column shining a light on the increasing use of rap lyrics in court cases. When in the past African Americans were lynched for using language deemed distasteful or offensive by Caucasians, now prosecutors are holding up lyrics from rap artists as evidence of a crime, instead of acknowledging that the words are being used as tools of expression and artistry, much like words are used in poetry and literature. This departure from reality, they write, is resulting in more black artists being convicted of crimes they did not commit and spending time in jail, essentially for putting pen to paper.

This is at least the third time since the end of 2014 that Killer Mike, writing under his given name of Michael Render, and Nielson have published columns exploring the consequences of the legal system taking rap lyrics at face value and introducing lyrics in court as admissions of guilt. The first came in November, after it was announced that Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t face charges in the death of unarmed man Michael Brown. Killer Mike made what was described as an “emotional speech” during a performance by Run the Jewels in St. Louis venue Ready Room, saying he was “so afraid” for his two sons, ages 20 and 12, in light of the violent protests that overtook the city in August, when Brown was killed, and again after the announcement was made that Wilson wouldn’t be charged.

In December, Render and Nielson published an opinion piece in USA Today looking at a case before the US Supreme Court, in which an aspiring rapper, Anthony Elonis, had been arrested for publishing what were believed to be threatening messages on his Facebook page that his ex-wife said were aimed at her.

“No other fictional form—musical, literary or cinematic— is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous,” they wrote at the time.

The Elonis case was argued before the Supreme Court in December; it is not known when a decision will be released but a review of the court’s website indicates opinions will be given on Tuesday, March 31. In what might be an unusual instance for rappers facing prosecution for their words, Elonis appears to be Caucasian based on a Google search of his name.

In this latest piece, published on Vox, Killer Mike notes that, based on his stage name, “people assume his stage name is meant to imply that he’s actually a killer, rather than what the name is meant to express—that he metaphorically kills microphones with his lyrics.” That is not an assumption that is made about The Killers, a group of white musicians.

“It only seems to apply in an unfavorable manner when you’re talking about a 6-foot-3 black guy,” he says. “And I think that has everything to do with the preconceptions and the prejudice and the bigotry that people bring to the table. It has little or nothing to do with my name.”

This time, they point to the case of McKinley Phipps, an artist on the New Orleans-based No Limit Records label, who has spent 15 years in jail after a prosecutor repeatedly pointed to his lyrics when trying Phipps for murder, despite not only witness testimony that he wasn’t responsible, but another man’s confession to being the killer.

Phipps “is not alone; there are more than 700,000 men behind bars,” they conclude. “But it is hardly a surprise that the young men of color who have used rap music to challenge America’s unjust justice system are the ones who are finding their words criminalized and their voices silenced. It’s a steep price to pay for art— but it’s a price rappers have been paying for years and, unfortunately, will continue to pay for years to come.”

For more on the Supreme Court case Elonis vs United States, read our previous coverage here.

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