Rappers defend student over online song

WASHINGTON • Musical tastes at the United States Supreme Court run towards opera. Yesterday, a glittering array of hip-hop stars were to try to expand the justices' musical horizons.

In a brief supporting a Mississippi high-school student who was disciplined for posting a rap song online, artists including T.I. and Killer Mike were to explain to the justices that rap music is a political and artistic juggernaut that deserves attention and First Amendment protection.

"The government punished a young man for his art - and, more disturbing, for the musical genre by which he chose to express himself," their brief says. The rappers urged the justices to hear an appeal from Taylor Bell, who was a high-school senior in 2011 when he was suspended and sent to a different school for posting a song on Facebook and YouTube that drew attention to complaints of sexual misconduct by two male coaches at his school.

"Following a long line of rappers before him," the brief said, "Bell saw an opportunity to confront injustice."

T.I.'s hits include collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. Killer Mike is a performer and political activist whose collaboration with rapper El-P, Run The Jewels 2, was on many 10-best lists last year.

Bell's song in 2011 is angry and full of profanity and violent images. In an interview, Killer Mike hoped that the justices would treat the images in the song no differently than they would similar ones in folk, country, reggae - or opera. "Anyone who is learned in law," he said, "is capable of separating art and lyrics, whether you agree with them or not, and actual human behaviour. I think the courts understand it when it's Johnny Cash. I think they understand it when it's Robert Nesta Marley."

Bell is now 22 and still pursuing a career in music. He and his mother had sued, seeking to have his school record expunged. A divided 16- member panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, rejected Bell's First Amendment challenge.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Rappers defend student over online song'. Print Edition | Subscribe