At its best, hip-hop is more than mere music. As last year’s N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” so brilliantly conveyed, lyrics too easily dismissed as violent or vulgar have the power to promote social change and reflect a reality that shouldn’t be ignored.
But as a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court exemplifies, even hip-hop has its limits.
In 2010, a Mississippi teenager named Taylor Bell recorded and distributed online a rap song he wrote in which he lambasted a pair of coaches at his high school who were accused of sexually harassing his female classmates. But Bell did more than just publicly address these coaches by name; the lyrics clearly contain multiple references to him angrily describing shooting them. The school district subsequently suspended Bell, a decision upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Now the Supreme Court has the option to hear Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, which Slate recently deemed “the most important case about free speech and students’ rights in a generation, not to mention a milestone for Internet expression.”
The case has also become something of a cause célèbre due to a trio of well-known rappers — Killer Mike, Big Boi and T.I. — who went so far as to file an amicus brief contending that what Bell recorded is no different than the metaphorical violence hip-hop artists have written rhymes about since the days of N.W.A.
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As Killer Mike (pictured above) himself wrote on CNN.com, “We don’t assume that Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King or Johnny Cash carry out the sometimes extreme violence depicted in their art because we acknowledge it as art.”
It’s perfectly conceivable that Taylor Bell’s song is art, but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic, too. Killer Mike doesn’t seem to take into account the false equivalence he’s setting up between Bell, whose lyrics target real people by name, and the works of Tarantino, King and Cash, who traffic in fiction. Even in instances when a rapper like N.W.A alum Ice Cube composed lyrics targeting either an entity like the Los Angeles Police Department or an individual like its chief, Daryl Gates, he’s addressing a public institution or a public figure.
When you consider how prevalent gun violence has become in our nation’s schools, rapping about “going to get a pistol down your mouth” (Bell’s words) and referencing a specific individual is not something to be taken lightly just because the words happen to be set to a beat.
In addition, it’s one thing to rap about an injustice, quite another to go way beyond publicizing the injustice to threatening violent retaliation. Moreover, Bell didn’t just allude to shooting coaches; he’s practically inviting his listeners to do same with lyrics like “middle fingers up if you want to cap that nigga / middle fingers up / he get no mercy nigga.”
We can argue Bell’s intent as an artist all day but when there’s language that can be misinterpreted by others as a call to arms, his intent becomes irrelevant.
Don’t misinterpret the First Amendment, which doesn’t afford a blanket guarantee of his right to free expression. That said, the school’s legal representatives aren’t going so far as to argue that Bell’s song constitutes a “true threat,” a somewhat amorphous exception to the First Amendment that allows someone who expresses intent to harm another to be prosecuted.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision is predicated on the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, which does not protect speech that prompts “substantial disruption” of the educational process. Teachers fearing being shot sounds like a reasonable interpretation of the Tinker doctrine, but of course, so should the coaches’ alleged sexual harassment Bell was protesting.
That gets to what makes Bell v. Itawamba so vexing: the horrible optics of a young black artist standing up to a white Southern school board who hadn’t punished educators who may be guilty of a real crime. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of nuance here that needs to be taken into consideration.
One wrinkle is that Bell didn’t perform his song on school grounds. That might have introduced some ambiguity into the case had the incident taken place in 1969 but seems irrelevant here. The Internet effectively erases the distance between the school’s front entrance and Bell’s recording studio.
And though it may sound like an elitist double standard, there is a world of difference between an aspiring rapper and a professional performer. When a high-school student freely shares a single homemade track via YouTube and Facebook about private individuals in which he claims, “I’m going to hit you with my Ruger,” the average individual who hears it isn’t necessarily going to interpret that as an artistic work even if that was the intention. But when a performer issues a work in the context of a commercial release, it’s safe for the audience to make the reasonable assumption that the lyrical content is purely provocative metaphor with no chance of being misinterpreted as an actual threat.
Legal scholars would like to see the Supreme Court weigh in here because U.S. courts have given very mixed messages on the subject of freedom of speech on the Internet. But maybe there should be more concern about setting a different kind of precedent: allowing people to use “art” as a fig leaf to cloak motives less pure than Bell’s as a means of inciting violence.
Taylor Bell was not a bad kid; he just made a bad decision deserving of a suspension from school. In an age when digital distribution makes it all too easy to intimidate others, the Supreme Court should let the Fifth Circuit decision stand.