The controversy of rap artists’ lyrics and the First Amendment has been a debate long argued. A great amount of rap artists’ have been convicted and sent to jail for lyrics they’ve written. Most of the rappers are falsely accused of murder and drug use just for mentioning such in their songs; however, many rap artists’ use strong language and speak of events that many are unaccustomed to which may shock and offend many listeners. This brings rise to the question, “Are artists’ lyrics protected under the First Amendment?” The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”. This means that Congress cannot restrict our practices of religion or people’s right to free speech, including song lyrics, poems, speeches, etc. Therefore, controversial statements made during artists’ songs are protected by the first Amendment.
Carla Herreria, a Hawaii-based reporter, claims that, “Rap music is a means for many people to express their own inner turmoil and frustrations and, by ‘criminalizing’ rap lyrics, the court risks silencing many Americans.” She’s saying that people who rap do it to release tension and when courts turn their means of expression into a criminal offense, they’re taking away a basic human right. She is correct, and rap lyrics are no more than a means of self expression and creativity. The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” but when the court criminalizes artist’s lyrics, they’re doing just that.
In 1986, an American hip hop group from Compton, California named N.W.A., or “Niggaz Wit Attitudes”, was formed and were notorious for their gangster repertoire. In 1988 they released one of their most popular, yet contentious, songs called “Fuck Tha Police”. The song was structured to seem like the rappers are in a courtroom while each of their verses are a testimony. The title of this particular song caused a lot of controversy, but the lyrics are what really provoked law enforcement officers. The song included lyrics such as, “A young nigga got it bad cause i’m brown”, and, “…so police think they have the authority to kill a minority.” At first, these lyrics sound very indecent, but in reality these verses are meant to display police brutality and injustices towards certain races. A year later, while on tour, the group actually performed the song in Detroit, but ended up being chased off stage by Detroit police and later, arrested. The police said they had arrested the group because they wanted to show people that you cannot say “fuck the police” in Detroit. This censorship lead to riots both in and around the venue, and overall created a larger problem than it should’ve been. The rap was made to mock the procedures of the judicial system and prove that racial stereotyping is a huge problem. Like Carla Herreria said, they’re using this rap to, “release their inner turmoil and frustrations.” Even though this song contained explicit language and was directed towards the police, it was still a means of expression. Thus, the group was protected under the First Amendment and the police had no real reason in arresting them. They were simply speaking up on issues that weren’t being solved and might never have without the use of their platform. Even Ice Cube himself, a member of the group, said, “I ain’t gonna change nothing I do, cause I ain’t doin’ nothing wrong.”
A Similar case, in 2012, involved a young man named Taylor Bell; a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi. This student was disciplined by the court for posting a rap song online to Facebook and YouTube. The song included the lyrics, “Looking down girls’ shirts, drool running down your mouth,” and, “Going to get a pistol down your mouth.” These were meant to focus on the sexually charged comments and unwanted touching by two male coaches towards female students; however, the court badly misunderstood. “The song does carry a lot of strong, vulgar language,” said Bell. “If you don’t really listen to hip-hop music, sometimes that language can kind of blur the message of what you’re trying to get across.” That is exactly what happened to the school officials; they were “blurred” by all the language that they completely missed the point of the rap. Adam Liptak, an American journalist, addresses this problem in his article, “Hip Hop Stars Stand Up for First Amendment Rights of a Student.” He argues that he sees nothing wrong with the way a student expressed his feelings towards the behaviors of two coaches. He also explains how the government punished a young man for a rap song created to address sexual harassment concerning several females and two male coaches. His purpose is to inform the reader of injustices towards this student. While he expresses his thoughts mostly to other students, he also addresses other rappers along with ordinary readers. Liptak states, “I see a kid who saw wrong happening and was outraged about it, he wrote a poem about it over a beat.” The student was making the predatorial events known, just in his own creative way. Yet, even though he was doing justice to the girls that were harrassed, he still got punished. Hearing this story made many people furious with the court and school officials. Several of these people being big named artists such as, T.I, Big Boy, and Killer Mike. Disappointed in the treatment of this young man, the famous rappers came to his support and even went as far as defending him in court arguing that, “Rap music is a political and artistic juggernaut that deserves attention and First Amendment protection.” However, even with the support of famous rappers, the government still punished Bell by suspending him to a different school and saying he was, “Guilty of harassment, intimidation and, threatening two named educators with gun-related violence.” Again, a rapper used their talents to release their angers and frustrations, while addressing major problems. Despite the language Bell used, he saw an opportunity to confront injustice and took it.
In the same year, yet another young man, named Jamal Knox, was punished by the government and actually arrested for the lyrics used in his song “Fuck the Police”. The song stated this, “Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good. Pullin’ your glock out cause I live in the hood.” These two verses were the only “threatening” lyrics that came from the song. Having lived in the “hood”, Knox’s intentions were to reflect on the many cases of police brutality and racial stereotyping; and like most rappers who have encountered racism and other injustices, he told a story over a beat. His story. However, the court told him he “crossed a line” that was not protected under the First Amendment. Once again, rappers were infuriated. Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Killer Mike and other high-profile hip-hop artists’ came together to defend the young rapper. They argued that, “Plenty of artists have songs that depict violence yet they’re not arrested and jailed.” They also added that, “The law can’t pick and choose who is guilty and who isn’t.” Nevertheless, that is exactly what the court was doing. Jamal Knox was sentenced to three to Four and a half years in prison for intimidation, terroristic threats, and conspiracy.
Even Though these rappers were justified in creating their raps and were supported by other artists, many still believe that they were making true threats and rap music is not protected. Scott Bomboy for example, in his article, “The conflict between rap lyrics and the First Amendment”, He claims that rap music, “…should be censored indefinitely. Expressing is one thing, But inciting violence, Riots, Violent protests, Threatening to kill innocent people, and invoking expression of violence in their songs is another.” He’s stating that rap music should be restricted because of the negative effects that may come with it. He is correct, to a point, that some songs may incite violence, protests, and perhaps even riots; however, artists are still free to express themselves and anything others do shouldn’t be their responsibility. Rap, and music in general, affect people differently and rappers are not obligated to keep their crowds under control. Another writer that shares the same beliefs is Larry Meeks from Detroit News. He claims, “It makes the singers appear to be malicious, brutal, and nasty. It also conveys the message they have a limited vocabulary and are unable to express themselves using socially acceptable words.” Like Bomboy, Larry Meeks feels that their choice of language also makes them sound ignorant and “unable to express themselves” in a civil way. It’s easy seeing where Meeks is coming from. Rap and “Gangsta rap” are two very controversial genres and contain strong language that is typically not seen as “socially acceptable”; nevertheless, that’s the choice people need to consider when attempting to listen to this type of music. Yes, it makes singers appear to be malicious and brutal, but that’s their form of expression. They choose to use foul language.
This type of music seems to be affecting the courts and police more than it affects the actual listeners. Then again, it’s hard to place the blame entirely on the police and courts when there are many people at fault. Most rappers tend to see themselves as bigger than the law and therefore, cause trouble for themselves. Even so, they rap stories of their experiences and if they have to curse, or be explicit to get their message across, why should it be a problem? When Johnny Cash, the famous American singer, said, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” no one questioned it. When the Jamaican songwriter, Bob Marley, came out with the song “I shot the sheriff”, no one believed it to be true. Courts appear to be singling out rap artists. Not only those mentioned, but many more. Perhaps it is because of the excessively violent lyrics, or the very nature of this genre. Still, but these are not valid reasons to convict and jail artists. Voltaire, a French Enlightenment writer and essayist, claims, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” He is saying that his views may not agree with other’s, but he believes that everyone has a right to what they believe. Rap music fits well here because many people are in disagreement with the nature and style of it, but those who rap still have a right to say what they believe. As do pop singers, rock singers, poets, filmmakers, etc. The police and courts may disagree with what rap artists’ have to say, but that doesn’t mean they criminalize them.
I bet people raised an eyebrow when Mr. Cash sang his lyric about watching a man die, yet he wasn’t charged with murder and treating rap lyrics differently, just proves that there is some sort of double standard. Stuart Taylor Jr. writes about problems like these in his article, “It’s Time to Junk the Double Standard on Free Speech”. In this article, he writes about censorship on college campuses and how there is a double standard when it comes to punishment on “free-speech”. One example in his text, is from a man named Thor L. Halvorssen, who is the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Inc. (FIRE). He believes that campus speech codes are, “Applied selectively, with a double standard depending on your blood and culture,”; meaning, that depending on one’s culture, the speech codes may or may not apply. This is how rap and music in general is being treated. Society seems to apply a double standard when it comes to rap music and completely disregard any other genre that use strong language. Halvorssen also mentions a photograph taken on a college campus by a student. The photograph showed a crucifix submerged in urine and titled “Piss Christ”. He then explains that if a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. were to be put in urine then, “The sky would fall and the entire school would have to be put through sensitivity training.” This relates to the song from Bob Marley where he sings about shooting the sheriff. Again, no one questioned this lyric; yet, when Jamal Knox rapped about killing the cops, he was convicted and jailed. Its safe to say that if Bob Marley were put into jail for his lyrics, much like the hypothetical scenario with Martin Luther KIng Jr., everyone would’ve freaked out. This is the double standard Stuart Taylor is talking about in the title of his article. The media is also accused for the double standard on speech in his text. He addresses the media saying, “But where have they been during the past two decades of efforts coming from…devotees of identity politics, racial preferences, and male-bashing brand of feminism…?” The media shines the light on what they want to make known. In turn, many stories go unheard of; especially the ones that breed controversy. In Taylor’s article, the media publicizes the shaming of a publisher and terroristic comments, but not the problems that have been present for years. The media is also seen at fault in the court cases mentioned previously with Taylor Bell and Jamal Knox. The media only covered the shocking parts like their explicit lyrics and language and not the full story. What they didn’t cover was the artists’ stories or reasons for writing those verses. They were just made out as troublesome teens who were rapping about violence and murder. Why does the media fixate on the negative and why do they come down on certain topics? As Stuart Taylor said, “It’s time to junk the double standard.”
Rap music is a means for many people to express their own inner turmoil and frustrations. Courts are taking away a basic human right when they turn rappers’ means of expression into a criminal offense. The right to free speech. It’s even stated in the First Amendment that, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”; however, this freedom is lost in translation when it comes to rappers and their style of music. Police are slicing their verses up and trying to piece together vicious events in relation to them. Their songs are not meant to be confessions, but that’s the way law enforcement and prosecutors perceive them. They tend to view any explicit lyric as a true event and therefore see fit to their conviction. Rappers are artists, and whatever they say over a beat is no different to that of another singer. People view rappers as gangsters while other singers are seen as creative artists. At the end of the day, rap is just another form of expression and any controversial statements made during artists’ songs are protected by the First Amendment.
- Bomboy, Scott. “The conflict between rap lyrics and the First Amendment.” Constitutional Daily, 28, Mar. 2014, www.constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-conflicn-between-rap-lyrics-as-criminal-evidence- nd-the-first-amendmen, Accessed 25 March 2019.
- Burgess, Natalie. “Essay 4 Prompt.” English 1 class meeting, 7 May 2019, Long Beach City College, CA. Lecture notes.
- Herreria, Carla. “Famous Rappers Say Pittsburgh Artist’s Lyrics Are Protected by First Amendment.” Huffpost, 7 Mar. 2019, www.huffpost.com/entry/rappers-supreme-court-first-amendment. Accessed 2, April, 2019.
- Liptak, Adam. “Hip-Hop Stars Stand Up for First Amendment Rights of a Student: [National Desk].” ProQuest, 21 December, 2015, www.lib-ezproxy.lbcc.edu:2054/docview/1750365500/fulltext/C3F7CB007DF545BEPQ/2?accountid=39846. Accessed 20, February, 2019.
- Meeks, Larry, G. “First Amendment rights don’t excuse racist lyrics found in today’s rap music: [Detroit News].” ProQuest, 8, Mar. 2000, /lib-ezproxy.lbcc.edu:2054/results/6A4A196978334148PQ/1?accountid=39846, Accessed 22, May, 2019.
- Taylor, Stuart, Jr. “It’s Time to Junk the Double Standard on Free Speech.” The Atlantic, 1, Jan. 2002, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2002/01/its-time-to-junk-the-double-standard-on-free-speech/378055/, Accessed 22, May, 2019.
- The First Amendment to the U.S constitution. “The First Amendment.” Fire,1, Jan. 2000, www.thefire.org/first-amendment-library/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwla7nBRDxARIsADll0kCFB9xSTIvQXapAdqZA3rTt4DWqSPRZQzYRKsYkNS7kR7BvlHxIvhoaAiwREALw_wcB. Accessed 20, May, 2019.