F**k the Police: Art or Threat? - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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F**k the Police: Art or Threat?

F**k the Police: Art or Threat?

Art has long been scrutinized for meaning by the consuming public. Although arriving later to the game, the rap genre has been no stranger to this type of scrutiny, even being subjected to legal inquiry. The latest criminalization of this particular art comes in the case of young rapper Jamal Knox, a.k.a. Mayhem Mal, whose song “F*ck the Police” landed him in jail for two years.1 Knox was arrested during a routine traffic stop on gun and drug charges.2 However, following the arrest, Knox posted his song, a nod to N.W.A.’s 1988 hit “F*ck tha Police,” on Facebook. 3 Knox received the two-year sentence because the song named the arresting officers and included lyrics that the prosecutors deemed akin to issuing terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses.4 At his trial in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Knox conviction was upheld based on an interpretation of his lyrics.5 Knox argued that his lyrics are not meant to be read as words on a page, but listened to in the context of a rap song.6 The judge, deciding for the majority, contended that Knox’s lyrics do not “include political, social or academic commentary, nor are they facially satirical or ironic,” thus making deeming them worthy of threats.7.

This will not be the first time that the Supreme Court has faced the issue of threatening rap lyrics. In Elonis v. United States, Plaintiff Anthony Elonis was arrested for violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a crime to communicate threats through interstate commerce.8 The “threats,” which he posted on Facebook, included both lyrics and videos of his original rap songs.9 Elonis argued before the court that his comments were merely an artistic and therapeutic release after his wife had left him.10 The District Court, however, decided that under a reasonable person standard of review, the lyrics were clearly threats and sentenced Elonis to 44 months imprisonment.11 The Supreme Court reversed the decision noting that the defendant had to intend to issue threats or know that his communications would be considered threats.12 Although Elonis won his case, the judicial lack of awareness surrounding the rap genre has clearly led to more problems, as evinced by this present case.

Earlier this month, led by Killer Mike, a group of artists, including Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, Fat Joe, and 21 Savage, submitted a brief on behalf of Jamal Knox13 In part, the brief includes educational lessons for judges on the history of rap.14 Rather than interpreting lyrics as legitimate threats, the brief seeks to show the judges that rap is an art form like any other and must be reviewed in that light. Knox’s lawyer, R. Stanton Jones, seemed to echo this sentiment when he stated, “While famous rappers like Eminem win Grammy Awards and make millions off the violent imagery in their songs, judges and juries are routinely convinced that lesser-known rap artists are somehow living out their lyrics as rhymed autobiography.”15 Although the case will not be reviewed for several more months, the spotlight these artists have shed on a racialized facet of artistic scrutinization has sparked interesting legal conversations.

  1. Veronica Stracqualursi, ‘Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill to Supreme Court: Pittsburgh rapper’s lyrics are not ‘a true threat of violence’ CNN. (Mar. 7, 2019) https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/07/politics/supreme-court-first-amendment-rappers/index.html. [https://perma.cc/N9CD-2DAT]

  2. Id.

  3. Id.

  4. Adam Liptak, Hip-Hop Artists Give the Supreme Court a Primer on Rap Music, N.Y. Times (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/06/us/politics/supreme-court-rap-music.html. [https://perma.cc/7R5B-PZ7T]

  5. Id.

  6. Id.

  7. Id.

  8. Amy Howe, Drawing a Line between Therapy and Threats: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 24, 2014), https://www.scotusblog.com/2014/11/drawing-a-line-between-therapy-and-threats-in-plain-english/. [https://perma.cc/K7KD-4FTR]

  9. Id.

  10. United States v. Elonis, 730 F.3d 321 (3d Cir. 2013), rev’d and remanded, 135 S. Ct. 2001, 192 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2015).

  11. Id.

  12. Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001, 192 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2015).

  13. Stracqualursi, supra note 1.

  14. Id.

  15. FNR TIGG, 21 Savage, Meek Mill, Chance and More Rap Stars United to Appeal Sentencing of Jamal Knox, Complex (Mar. 6, 2019), https://www.complex.com/music/2019/03/rap-stars-unite-to-appeal-the-sentencing-of-jamal-knox (emphasis added). [https://perma.cc/ZQ4E-PXUL]

Kathryn Jones

Kathryn Jones is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal. Kathryn is currently a Research Assistant at the Emily C. and John E. Hansen Intellectual Property Institute.