Seven years ago, rapper Jamal Knox was arrested by a pair of Pittsburgh police officers on gun and drug charges. Knox, who goes by the stage name Mayhem Mal, later penned a song called “F*ck the Police”, which mentioned those same two officers by name and featured lines like “Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good.”
The track’s controversial lyrics resulted in Knox, as well as a fellow co-writer, being convicted and sentenced to two to six years behind bars on charges of terroristic threats and witness intimidation. Knox has repeatedly appealed the 2014 conviction, arguing that “F*ck the Police” counts as free speech protected by the First Amendment.
However, last year saw Pennsylvania Supreme Court uphold the original conviction. And now today, the US Supreme Court has followed suit, declining to review the case, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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In their 2018 ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to overturn Knox’s conviction because, unlike other songs that excoriate the police, “F*ck the Police” supported violence against the two explicitly named officers, Daniel Zeltner and Michael Kosko.
In the minds of judges, while rap music is to be taken as an art form, “F*ck the Police” went beyond “generalized animosity” toward officers and was made as an actual real threat. Despite Knox insisting that that was not his intention, at the end of the day all that mattered was how the song was perceived by its so-called targets. As proof, judges and the prosecution pointed to Officer Kosko, who said he left the police force because he feared for his life due to Knox’s track lyrics.
Since the initial Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, Knox has gained support from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and some of the hip-hop scene’s biggest names. Ahead of today’s decision, Chance the Rapper, Killer Mike, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, and others came together to defend Knox and free speech rights by offering the US Supreme Court a “primer on rap music and hip-hop.”
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In a legal brief titled “Friend of the Court” filed in March, these rappers explained why “F*ck the Police”, which was partly inspired by N.W.A.’s own similarly titled protest song, should be considered art (via the New York Times):
“A person unfamiliar with what today is the nation’s most dominant musical genre or one who hears music through the auditory lens of older genres such as jazz, country or symphony,” they wrote, “may mistakenly interpret a rap song as a true threat of violence.”
“This is a work of poetry,” the rappers wrote. “It is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand.”
To further bolster their argument, they turned to a quote from Ice-T. In his memoir, the veteran rapper wrote that the character he takes on in his songs isn’t always reflective of his true self. “If you believe that I’m a cop killer,” he wrote, “you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.”
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Killer Mike argued that racism might have also played a part in how Knox’s “F*ck the Police” was being treated. In a separate interview, he offered up a comparison of outlaw country and gangster rap to illustrate the double standard:
“Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both,” he said. “And I can tell you that the lyrics are dark and brutal when Johnny Cash describes shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and when Ice Cube rapped about a drive-by shooting early in his career.”
“It’s no different from stop and frisk,” he said. “It’s another form of racial profiling.”
Revisit the now-infamous “F*ck the Police”.