When high school students see an injustice going on in the halls, some gossip with their friends about it. Others may report the problem to a teacher. Taylor Bell rapped about it — and was punished in the process.
During 2010 winter break, Bell, then a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, wrote and recorded a song about two athletic coaches who multiple female classmates told him had sexually harassed and inappropriately touched them.
But when Bell rapped about the controversy, using biting lyrics such as "You fucking with the wrong one / Going to get a pistol down your mouth / Pow," his whistleblowing wasn’t exactly commended. Instead, he was suspended for using threatening language in the song and placed in an alternative high school for six weeks after posting a recording of his song to Facebook and YouTube.
Bell, then 18, and his mother sued the school to have his record cleared of any wrongdoing. Now his small-town case may reach the US Supreme Court (after the Fifth Circuit ruled in his favor in 2014), and there are much broader implications at stake: essentially, the First Amendment right to use rap as an artistic form of expression and a legitimate method of protest. That’s why rappers Killer Mike, Big Boi, and T.I., and artists like Favianna Rodriguez have joined scholars and legal experts in filing a 25-page amicus brief to the court in support of Bell’s freedom of speech on Monday. The brief acts as Hip-Hop 101 for the court, whose average age is about 75.
The brief, written by hip-hop culture scholars Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond; University of California Irvine professor Charis E. Kubrin; Cornell professor Travis L. Gosa; and rapper Killer Mike, is quite entertaining in its unabashed expertise of hip-hop as both protest and art.
And Bell's song plays to those elements. According to the case that went before the Fifth Circuit Court, Bell said he believed complaining about the sexual harassment would fall on deaf ears, which is why he resorted to a song instead.
"There’s a long history of protest not just in rap but in hip-hop culture in general, and he was using his song to draw attention to misconduct, institutions of power that are taking advantage of people," Nielson told me Monday. "So in every way, he’s using hip-hop at its best, and he’s being punished for it."
The high school's argument, reiterated by one judge on the Fifth Circuit, is that his lyrics were threatening to the coaches involved. However, the new amicus brief reads, those threats were "in actuality, well-worn rap lyrics borrowed — at times nearly verbatim — from some of music’s most successful and acclaimed performers."
Assertiveness or a threat?
Nielson and Kubrin stepped in on a similar case last year, where the threat of rap lyrics was up for debate. Last year the court ruled 7-2 that Anthony Elonis’s Facebook status updates (using lyrics from the Eminem song "I’m Back") couldn't be considered a threat.
With Bell, Nielson called the school administrators' claim that Bell posed a threat "disingenuous," since he was not initially treated like a threat. Prior to Bell dropping the song "PSK da Truth" under his pseudonym T-Bizzle, he had a clear disciplinary record aside from one tardy. When the song was discovered by administrators, Bell was suspended and placed in an alternative high school for the rest of the academic quarter. Still, Nielson said administrators didn't follow the typical protocol for a threatening student, including searching his locker or sending him home immediately. (He was allowed to remain on campus on the day he was officially suspended.)
If anything, the brief reminds the court that T-Bizzle's threatening lyrics were imitations of those who have come before him. One of his lines — "You fucking with the wrong one / Going to get a pistol down your mouth / Pow" — sounds a bit like Lil Wayne ("Pistol in your mouth, I can not make out what you tryin’ to say") and Waka Flocka Flame ("Ni**as know I got a pistol in his mouth"). Another T-Bizzle lyric, "middle fingers up, he get no mercy, ni**a" sounds reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s "middle finger up, give a fuck how they feel."
The obvious difference, though, is that Kendrick Lamar, Waka Flocka Flame, and Lil Wayne are major recording artists. T-Bizzle was a high school student in Mississippi, and the subjects of his lyrics were people with whom he shared a building every day. But is there a difference when considering rap as artistic expression?
"You want people to understand rap is art," Killer Mike told me Monday. "You want people to understand First Amendment rights affect this young man. What this kid did was a protest record. An American kid saw an injustice and did a brave thing and stood up against it. The fact that a child in high school stood up and did something for someone else [should be celebrated]."
Nielson added, "We reward professional artists with millions of dollars and Grammy awards, but [Bell’s] getting sent to an alternative high school, all while doing it by calling out sexual misconduct at his school."
Rap, race, and language policing
Bell, it seems, was mimicking not just rap stars, but potentially his black ancestors. As the authors of the brief wrote, rap grew out of disenfranchised (mostly black) communities, where people used music to speak out about inequalities they faced on a daily basis, and as a call to stand up against the status quo. Even hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's early lyrics from the 1970s were inspired by the passionate language of the progressive black liberation movement, whose own roots can be drawn to folk tales from the era of Jim Crow segregation.
Naturally, these messages made the music seem antagonistic to some. But even as rap became more mainstream, the old fear and suspicion that accompanied it did not dissolve.
"Rap is vilified in the press by critics from a variety of perspectives, either as 'fake' music or as a scourge to minority communities," the brief states. "Alongside this criticism comes continued scrutiny from law enforcement, including police task forces created for the express purpose of surveilling rappers."
The authors argue T-Bizzle was echoing the metaphors, hyperbole, and exaggeration that permeate rap music; in other words, the lyrics aren't diary entries. But even with rap and hip-hop culture being part of mainstream popular culture, the genre is still often viewed through a lens of fear by those who are not familiar with it, which probably prompted Itawamba administrators to act.
"It’s clearly because the young men of color are the primary producers of it," Nielson notes. "A similarly worded country song probably wouldn't be scrutinized in the same way."
The scrutiny is clear in the way an Itawamba disciplinary committee member said Bell was not wrong in speaking out against the sexual harassment his classmates say they experienced. Instead, the committee member criticized Bell's language.
"You are good [at rapping], but everybody doesn’t really listen to that kind of stuff," the member said according to court documents. "So, if you want to get your message out to everybody, make it where everybody will listen to it. … Censor that stuff. Don’t put all those bad words in it. … The bad words ain’t making it better."
The Fifth Circuit ruled Bell's song was essentially not a threat to the coaches or student population, but one partially dissenting judge wrote of Bell's "incredibly violent, vulgar, and profane" lyrics.
The race of the Itawamba committee member is not indicated in the court documents, but Nielson said Bell's treatment and the fact that these lyrics were rap lyrics and not, for instance, a sea shanty, invited extra scrutiny.
"This is focused on race," Nielson said. "It’s very clear that race is central to what happened here," in part because hip-hop culture embodies many of the negative views others have of black people.