Grammy-winning rapper Killer Mike (Mike Render) and assistant professor at the University of Richmond, Erik Nielson, have had enough of Hip Hop being excluded from the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. Especially in the case of Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, where a young man is being penalized for his choice of delivery in exposing the inappropriate behavior of school coaches.
No stranger to holding his tongue on political matters, Killer Mike has been known to support presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and defend Beyoncé‘s Formation video on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. He argues that race has a big part to play in the treatment of rappers, as other genres don’t have to deal with their lyricism being held under scrutiny in the same way. Hip Hop was born in the spirit of rebellion and speaking out against authority and the injustices of society and so has always left a bitter taste in the mouth of the justice system. This case is no different.
Taylor Bell recorded a rap song based on accusations he had heard from a few of his female classmates about two school coaches behaving in a sexual manner with students. These accusations were later confirmed in court. The song was recorded outside of school and was never played nor performed on campus. The song featured a line about metaphorically killing the coaches; in the same way many rap songs before it have used provocative bars with no intention for literal violence.
Killer Mike supports his point by comparing Bell’s hostile lyrics to the violence portrayed in films: “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.”
The two coaches in question were never investigated and the police were never involved. Bell was suspended on the grounds of “threatening, harassing and intimidating” staff members, despite one of the identified coaches commenting that he knew it was “just a rap.” Bell’s locker was never searched, suggesting that the school never considered the lyrics to be a genuine threat. Killer Mike states that Bell “was being punished for using the wrong art form, rap music, as his voice of protest.”
As well as suggesting that rap’s exemption from legal protection comes from its ethnic roots and history of rebellion, the MC also remarks on how money is an important factor: “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.”
It appears that Itawamba County cares more about silencing its pupils than protecting them; as shown in a separate case from 2010, where they lost the battle against an outraged lesbian pupil whose prom was cancelled to avoid her showing up with her girlfriend. Despite the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding Bell’s suspension, hopefully the Supreme Court will recognize that the most important factor in this case is the subject matter and not Bell’s urban delivery.