After a few brushes with the Top 40 in the early aughts followed by a long period playing almost exclusively to the type of rap obsessive who can spend hours debating the merits of various artists who’ve been in Outkast’s orbit, Killer Mike entered into a fecund second act of his career with 2012’s R.A.P. Music and his ongoing collaboration with rapper/producer El-P, Run the Jewels. At the same time he’s used the growing attention coming his way to speak out about social and political issues, especially ones that affect young people of color, becoming the most persuasive pundit to emerge out of hip-hop culture since Chuck D.
A week after delivering an emotional soliloquy at a Run the Jewels show that happened to take place in St. Louis on the night that a grand jury dismissed charges against Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown, USA Today has published an essay by Mike and University of Richmond assistant professor of Liberal Arts Erik Nielson about an upcoming case that the Supreme Court will hear in December where a rapper’s lyrics were used as evidence against him at a criminal trial.
Elonis v. U.S. challenges the 2010 conviction of Anthony Elonis, who served 44 months in prison after posting threats on Facebook directed toward his estranged wife and an FBI agent, among others. Many of the threats took the form of rap lyrics in the vein of Eminem’s frequently violent compositions.
Although Elonis’ threats against his wife make him an unsympathetic victim, Killer Mike argues that he’s a victim nonetheless, convicted by a court that doesn’t see a distinction between rap lyrics and real life.
“As recent research has revealed,” Mike and Nielson write, “rap lyrics have been introduced as evidence of a defendant’s criminal behavior in hundreds of cases nationwide, frequently leading to convictions that are based on prosecutors’ blatant mischaracterizations of the genre. Ignoring many of the elements that signal rap as form of artistic expression, such as rappers’ use of stage names or their frequent use of metaphor and hyperbole, prosecutors will present rap as literal autobiography. In effect, they ask jurors to suspend the distinction between author and narrator, reality and fiction, to secure guilty verdicts.”