(AllHipHop News) Atlanta-based rap stars Big Boi, Killer Mike, and T.I. are defending a Mississippi high school student’s First Amendment rights. The trio is among a host of concerned citizens that filed a brief to the United States Supreme Court on why rap music is an art form protected by the Constitution.
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Taylor Bell (aka T-Bizzle) was suspended from his high school in 2011 after releasing a song about two school coaches accused of sexually harassing other students. The allegations have not been denied by the school. Bell was forced to transfer, and he later sued his original school. While he lost in a lower court, he is now hoping the Supreme Court will take his case.
Killer Mike, T.I., and Big Boi were also joined by Pharoahe Monch and Jasiri X in adding their names to the brief filed on behalf of Bell. Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond, Charis E. Kubrin of the University of California-Irvine, and Travis L. Gosa of Cornell University are among the main authors. Professors from several universities including USC, Columbia, Georgetown, Northwestern, and UCLA also signed on as friends of the court supporting Bell.
The brief references the artistic value of several Hip Hop acts including Afrika Bambaataa, Jay Z, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, and more.
Check out some of the passages from the amici curiae brief for “Taylor Bell v. Itawamba County School Board” below.
Hip Hop history/Afrika Bambaataa
Hip hop—a cultural movement comprised of performance arts such as MCing (“rapping”), DJing (“spinning”), breakdancing (“b-boying”), and graffiti (“writing”)—began as a response to these dire conditions. Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa (once a gang leader himself) used spiritual and political consciousness (“knowledge of self”) to develop hip hop as a tool for ending gang violence by providing an outlet that transformed the inherent competitiveness and territoriality of gang life into something artistic and productive. Dance competitions, rap battles, and other competitive performances replaced actual fighting, and rap in particular eventually became an alternative, legal source of income for blacks and Latinos otherwise cut off from labor market opportunities.
In his memoir, Decoded, Jay-Z—one of the best-selling artists in history—recounts being following around New York City by the same “hip hop cop” for seven years and, at one point, being arrested for no reason other than so police could “paint the picture of me as a menace to society.” JAYZ, DECODED 162 (2011). Jay-Z explains why rappers, as opposed to artists in other genres, receive such treatment: “The difference is obvious, of course: 11 Rappers are young black men telling stories that the police, among others, don’t want to hear.”
Perhaps recognizing the transformative power of hip hop, both in the U.S. and abroad, the Vatican included the song Changes by Tupac Shakur (a rapper well known for using violent rhetoric to attack institutions of power) on its official MySpace playlist in 2009. Jo Piazza, Tupac Song Selected for Vatican Playlist, CNN (Dec. 4, 2009). The song includes lyrics like “Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares, one less hungry mouth on the welfare” and “My stomach hurts, so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.” The Vatican— unlike the Disciplinary Committee and Fifth Circuit—apparently recognized the difference between artistic expression and literal truth.
Like Tupac Shakur, Taylor Bell was using his music to effect changes. In the final portion of the video for his song PSK da Truth, Bell says that in rapping about sexual misconduct at his high school, he is trying to raise awareness about similar injustices around the world: “It’s something that’s been going on, you know, worldwide for a long time that I just felt like, you know, I needed to address.”
Songs like Ether reveal some of the most basic characteristics of rap as a creative form. Not only is the genre imbued with an inherent sense of competitiveness, it also is “a complex linguistic art where words are constantly in flux, changing meanings and intentions, texture and sound.” ADAM BRADLEY, BOOK OF RHYMES: THE POETICS OF HIP HOP 89 (2009).
The decision by the court of appeals punishes a student for his art—and perpetuates unfair and inaccurate stereotypes—by mischaracterizing often used rap music phrases as “threats.” The decision either failed to understand, or failed to acknowledge, Taylor Bell’s rap song as artistic expression. As a result, Bell’s petition for certiorari should be granted.