clock menu more-arrow no yes

Here's how two hip-hop experts explained how rap works to Antonin Scalia

Eminem and Dr. Dre at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. The case centers around lyrics alluding to Eminem's song "I'm Back"; Nielson and Kubrin's brief cites "Fuck tha Police," which Dre produced.
Eminem and Dr. Dre at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. The case centers around lyrics alluding to Eminem's song "I'm Back"; Nielson and Kubrin's brief cites "Fuck tha Police," which Dre produced.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Anthony Elonis got a big win at the Supreme Court on Monday — one bolstered by an amicus brief written by two hip-hop experts.

In a 7-2 ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court overturned Elonis's conviction for threatening his ex-wife via Facebook status updates. The alleged threats took a number of forms; one, for example, was a reference to a skit on the sketch comedy show The Whitest Kids U' Know. But a number took the form of rap lyrics, including one cribbing from Eminem's "I'm Back."

The case centered on whether, as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick put it, "the speaker’s intent or the listener’s response … determine if there has been a 'true threat' of violence" in cases about criminal threats." The government argued that it needed only to show that a reasonable person would view Elonis's statements as threats; the Court disagreed, arguing that Elonis's own mental state had to be considered as well, and noted that Elonis strongly disputed the idea that he meant the posts to be threatening.

But if Elonis had intended the posts as threats, that all would have been moot. Analyzing his intent means analyzing his lyrics, which requires knowing at least a little bit about how to interpret rap verses, an area in which the nine justices have comparatively little experience.

That's where University of Richmond's Erik Nielson and UC Irvine's Charis Kubrin came in. The duo filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting Elonis's position. Almost certainly the first Supreme Court brief whose bibliography includes citations to the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Things Done Changed," Eminem's "Sing for the Moment," N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police," or Wu-Tang's "Clan in Da Front," it's about as good an introduction to hip-hop for the Olds as one could hope for. Here, for example, is the section citing GZA:

Similarly, when GZA from the well-known group Wu-Tang Clan raps, "I’ll hang your ass with this microphone" and later warns "I come sharp as a blade and I cut you slow," he is asserting his virtuosity as a lyricist rather than making literal threats of violence

Here's them breaking down the meaning of "Thug Life":

Many critics have decried gangsta rap’s violent, criminal themes, arguing that the music perpetuates 14 social ills without attempting to solve them. Yet once again, a closer look reveals a more nuanced reality than many critics recognize.

Take, for example, Tupac Shakur, one of rap’s most well-known and highly respected artists. He had the words "Thug Life" tattooed across his chest, which was widely interpreted – misinterpreted, it turns out – as a sign that Shakur embraced violent gang life. In fact, one thing the tattoo signified was a complex code of ethics called "THUG LIFE," signed by members of the Bloods and Crips (rival gangs), that Shakur helped write in order to reduce the devastation caused by gang violence and drug addiction. Notably, acclaimed poet and university professor Nicki Giovanni now wears a "Thug Life" tattoo on her arm to honor Shakur’s work.

Be sure to read Lithwick's breakdown of the brief and in-depth analysis of the decision. Lest you think this is an isolated incident, there are a number of other recent cases in which courts have found themselves having to discern intent from rap lyrics. As Adam Serwer notes, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled just last month that rap lyrics could not be admitted as evidence of intent in an attempted murder trial, with Justice Jaynee LaVecchia writing, "One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff."

For more, read Nielson and Michael "Killer Mike" Render's piece for Vox on how prosecutors are increasingly — and erroneously — treating rap lyrics as admissions of guilt.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.