Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike is no stranger to the political sphere. Recently, he’s used his burgeoning role as a social activist to campaign for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and to defend Beyonce’s “Formation” video on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Now, he’s turned his attention to a free speech case in Mississippi involving the controversial suspension of high school student Taylor Bell.
Along with Erik Nielson, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, Mike co-wrote an op-ed for CNN that discusses the First Amendment and how it relates to Bell’s case and hip-hop music.
Bell v. Itawamba County School Board stems from a rap song Bell released that accuses two coaches from his high school of sexual misconduct. Those claims were based on accusations that Bell allegedly heard from female classmates of his (and which were later confirmed in sworn affidavits by the girls involved). Instead of looking into the claims made against the two coaches, the high school suspended Bell because of what it considered “threatening” lyrics in his song. The suspension was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case has now made its way to the Supreme Court.
In their op-ed, Mike and Nielson claim that Bell was punished because of the way he presented his claims, which proves there’s a double standard between rap and other art forms when it concerns freedom of speech.
“Bell wasn't being punished for making threats against school employees, even if that was the school's justification,” Mike and Nielson wrote. “Instead, he was being punished for using the wrong art form, rap music, as his voice of protest.”
They go on to defend the language Bell used in his song, saying it’s part of a “long tradition of social protest in rap music,” and link him to popular MCs like Ice Cube, Eminem, Nas, and Jay Z, who have all used pointed language in their music.
“Throughout those careers, none of their fans ever believed that Ice Cube would kill former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, that Eminem would kill his wife, Kim, or that Nas and Jay Z would kill each other -- all claims the rappers made in their songs,” they wrote. “Likewise, 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.
“But as we have noted before,” they continue, “rap is often denied that respect, particularly in the criminal justice system, where amateur rappers, almost always young men of color who lack the name recognition (and bank accounts) of their professional counterparts, are routinely prosecuted for their music, either because people believe that rap should be read literally or because they just don't like it.”
Read Mike and Nielson’s full CNN op-ed here.