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.
After three years of working on it, Travis Gosa (Cornell University) and I have published our first book, The Hip Hop & Obama Reader, on 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.”
My book (with Travis Gosa, Cornell University) on hip hop and politics–titled The Hip Hop & Obama Reader—will 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
In May, I collaborated with Clay Calvert and Charis Kubrin on an op-ed for Forbes, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of Anthony Elonis, a man who was sent to prison for posting to Facebook menacing rap lyrics directed at his wife and an FBI agent. The Court agrees to hear arguments in only a tiny fraction of the cases submitted for consideration, so we were both surprised and excited when it agreed to hear Elonis v. U.S.
The case will focus on true threats jurisprudence–what criteria are required for speech to be considered a genuine threat–but Charis Kubrin and I just wrote an op-ed for CNN in which we argue that the Court should also use this case as an opportunity to address the growing, and disturbing, prosecution of rap lyrics. As we ask in the op-ed, if throwing people in jail for their art isn’t a true threat, what is?
Salon: Hip-hop scholar Erik Nielson works as an expert witness fighting
to keep rap out of the courtroom
When author and professor Andrew Cotto approached me about doing this interview for Salon related to my work on rap lyrics in criminal trials, I was both flattered and grateful for the continued attention to this issue. I am pleased with how it came out and hope it continues to put the spotlight on this disturbing use of art to put people in prison.
I’d also like to acknowledge the central role of Charis Kubrin in this research–we’ve been working together for almost a year now to make this part of a national conversation.
As this blog makes abundantly clear, I’ve been very interested in the (mis)use of rap lyrics as evidence in trials. As it turns out, there’s a case up for consideration by the Supreme Court–U.S. v. Elonis— that involves rap lyrics posted to Facebook that were prosecuted as “true threats.” I’ve just written this op-ed for Forbes, along with First Amendment expert Clay Calvert from the University of Florida and Charis Kubrin, my regular partner in crime on this rap-as-evidence topic. In it we argue that the Court should take up the case, not only because it deals with the prosecution of rap lyrics, but also because it offers an opportunity to provide much-needed guidance on “true threats” jurisprudence in the age of social media.