Mad Skillz and U of R

Rapper Mad Skillz to be artist in residence at University of Richmond

I am very excited to announce that Richmond hip hop artist Donnie Lewis (aka Mad Skillz) will be joining the University as an Artist-in-Residence with the School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS).  Skillz is widely recognized for putting Richmond on the hip hop map–he’s worked with heavyweights such as Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Nas, Timbaland, Will Smith, Missy Elliot, Cee Lo, and many others.  As it turns out, he got his start–and his rap monicker–while rapping at the University’s radio station a couple of decades ago.

This spring, he and I will be teaching a course called “The Voice of Hip Hop in America.”  It will be open to a limited number of students from Arts & Sciences, and fully open to the University’s evening students.  We will have some surprises in store for these students…

For more on Mad Skillz’ role at the University, here’s a recent piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch.  Expect more media attention in the coming weeks!

Keeping rap lyrics out of court

MurilloThis is my latest piece at Rolling Stone.  Here I begin with the case of Anthony Murillo, a California high school student who was prosecuted for writing a rap song that, according to authorities, was a threat.  I testified as an expert witness for the defense, and in a rare victory in cases like this, he was found not guilty.  As I have written many times in the past, most defendants whose rap lyrics are used as evidence against them are not so lucky.   Here I consider a number of the reasons why.

As I mention in this article, I am now working with University of Georgia law professor Andrea Dennis to gather data on these cases. In the fall of 2016, we each had student research teams helping us, and they generated some truly impressive research.  Here at the University of Richmond, the team was comprised of Lisa Cheney, Tracy Ellerman, Zach Grossfeld, Dean Liverman, and Laini Marshall.   Their work was invaluable, so in the fall of 2017, I will be putting together another team of students to continue learning about–and drawing attention to–the disturbing use of an art form to put people in prison.

Marijuana reform and inequality

rolling-stone-article

I just wrote this piece for Rolling Stone with friend and sometimes-collaborator Killer Mike.  In it, we look at the way marijuana legalization (in 28 states plus DC) has created a major industry, but also one that is leaving behind people of color.  As we note, black and Hispanic men have paid a steep price for marijuana prohibition (and the drug war generally) and so it’s particularly unjust to exclude them from the profits associated with legalization.

There are a number of ways to make marijuana reform more inclusive.  Here we focus on the need for states to allow people with convictions for nonviolent drug crimes to own and operate marijuana dispensaries.  In most states, they can’t–and that perpetuates the inequalities that have characterized marijuana laws for decades.

Back to the Supreme Court–with help this time

TI Mike Big Boi

Last year, I was lead author of an amicus brief on rap music for the U.S. Supreme Court (in Elonis v. U.S.).  I have written another brief for the Court, also on rap, but this time with some additional help: Travis Gosa (Cornell), Charis Kubrin (UC Irvine–co-author on the Elonis brief), and Michael Render, aka Killer Mike.

The brief, which was filed this evening (Dec. 21), is posted here.

It is written in support of Taylor Bell, a Mississippi high school student who was suspended for recording a rap song that called out two coaches for sexual misconduct (accusations that the school has not denied).  For more information, check out Adam Liptak’s piece in the New York Times, which focuses on our brief but also provides important background and context.

In addition to having Killer Mike as an author, we were also (thanks in large part to Mike’s efforts) able to get a wide range of artists and scholars to lend their name and support to the brief.  Among the most notable are T.I. and Big Boi, two of the biggest names in rap.  They deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to stand up for a young man who was unfairly punished for using his art to address an injustice, as do the many others who signed onto our brief.

Hopefully, this will help convince the Court to hear Bell’s case and in the process show that when hip hop artists stand up for a cause, people listen.

The Hip Hop & Obama Reader

Cover

After three years of working on it, Travis Gosa (Cornell University) and I have published our first book, The Hip Hop & Obama Readeron Oxford University Press.  This volume features original contributions from some of the country’s leading scholars and activists, who offer new perspectives on hip hop’s role in political mobilization, community organizing, and voter turnout during the Obama era and beyond.  They also consider the way Obama’s presidency has (or hasn’t) been shaped by hip hop and, conversely, how hip hop has responded to Obama.

So far, the feedback has been excellent, with Michael Eric Dyson calling the book “superb” and “brilliant” and Emmett Price describing it as “an unparagoned mixtape (in written form) of brilliance by an all-star cast of Hip Hop thought leaders, activists, and scholars.”

The declining relationship between hip hop and Obama

Obama and Ludacris

My book (with Travis Gosa, Cornell University) on hip hop and politics–titled The Hip Hop & Obama Readerwill be published on Oxford University Press next month.

In anticipation of that, we just published this op-ed in The Washington Post on the declining relationship between hip hop artists/activists and the President.  We not only chart this decline and offer reasons for it, but we also consider the ramifications for the 2016 election.

The Threat of Rap Music

I have served, or am currently serving, as an expert witness in five cases involving rap lyrics as evidence, and I have probably consulted on twenty others. In this op-ed for The Washington Post, I draw on that experience, as well as my research with Charis E. Kubrin, to consider the impact that Elonis v. U.S. could have on aspiring rappers, especially those who rely on social media to disseminate their work.

As I argue here, police are spending a surprising amount of time monitoring sites like YouTube and Facebook, often finding rap lyrics or videos that they (mis)interpret as evidence of a crime.  The results can be disastrous for young artists who are in many cases using this music to escape a life of crime, not perpetuate one.

Rap’s Poetic (In)Justice

I have been using this blog primarily to draw attention to the widespread misuse of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings.  To help get the word out–and get the music industry involved–I reached out to rapper and activist Killer Mike, and together we wrote this op-ed in USA Today.  In it, we use the U.S. Supreme Court case Elonis v. U.S. as the backdrop for a discussion of the ways rap music is regularly, and unfairly, depicted as a threat to society.

In teaming up with Killer Mike, I’m not only working with one of the most important rappers in the game today (Run the Jewels 2, his collaboration with El-P, is regarded by many as the best rap album of the year), but also one of the most socially and politically active.  He is using his growing platform to address some of the most pressing issues facing America today, in the process establishing himself as a leading public intellectual — as well as a guy who routinely kills the mike.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that just about every major music publication has covered this op-ed, helping us achieve even more visibility for an issue that is important to both of us.

More to come from me and Mike…

The Supreme Court and Rap Music

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Elonis v. U.S., a case involving rap lyrics that were prosecuted as threats.  Today,  the University of Florida’s Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project submitted this amicus brief to the Court, which I wrote along with Professors Clay Calvert and Charis Kubrin.  In it, we argue that the complexities of rap, not to mention the negative reactions that it evokes in many people, make it susceptible to misinterpretation.  It makes sense, therefore, that a speaker’s intent is crucial in determining what constitutes a real threat.

To any rap fan, this is basic common sense.  In the legal system, unfortunately, common sense doesn’t always prevail.

PBS NewsHour and Rap on Trial

Last night, PBS NewsHour ran a segment on a topic I’ve dedicated much of this blog to:  the growing use of rap lyrics in criminal trials.  I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for the piece, and I’m especially happy to have been involved because of how well it turned out.  I knew this story needed to be told visually to come alive, but also by a network that takes journalism seriously.  I think the producers at PBS (shout out to William Brangham and Saskia DeMelker) nailed it.

It’s about 10 minutes long, and although there’s always more to say, I think this provides an excellent overview of the issue and a balanced look at differing perspectives.  A big thanks to PBS for helping to keep this topic in the spotlight.