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Pittsburgh Rappers Sentenced for Threatening Police in a Song: True Threat or First Amendment Violation?

Two young men were sentenced to prison for a slew of charges all stemming from an arrest made after the pair recorded and released a rap video that referenced both convicted cop-killer Richard Poplawski and two specific officers who previously arrested them.

Jamal Knox, age 19, and Rashee Beasley, age 22, of Pittsburgh, Pa., who go by the rap monikers “Mayhem Mal” and “Soulja Beaz” respectively, were arrested on March 20, 2013. They lied about their identities and ran from police, but it all began because they made a rap song and the police took it seriously.

The ruling, handed down by Allegheny County judge Jeffrey Manning, dismissed the plaintiffs’ First Amendment concerns according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “This isn’t about freedom of speech,” he told the court. “It clearly was intimidation of witnesses. It clearly was terroristic threats.” Since the video was removed from YouTube, there is no way to know for sure the context.

Pittsburgh attorney Samuel J. Cordes was quoted in the Tribune-Review saying the song flirts with the line between protected speech and the true threat law. “They were expressing a view, however unpopular that it may be,” Cordes said. “On the other side of the coin, they did it while awaiting trial about the officers who were going to testify against them.”

While this is true, the question actually hinges on whether or not the rappers, as stated in Virginia v. Black, “subjectively intend[ed] that [their] comments be interpreted as a true threat.” Knox said in open court that his “Mayhem Mal” moniker represents a character. “As a rapper, you have to put on an image,” he said. “It's not just Jamal Knox being a rapper. My product is Mayhem Mal.”

The central ethical question then involves the “thug culture” popularized by hip-hop and applied liberally to other situations, most recently the controversy surrounding Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. When discussing the emergence of gangsta rap in a cultural context, it — like millennia of art before it — documented a point of view that otherwise had gone unnoticed in society at large. Yet, with hip hop it has become somewhat aspirational.

Jay-Z, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre are all cultural icons and multimillionaire business moguls who came from the same culture of violence and drugs that these two youths were born into. If the goal is to guide these young men to the “straight-and-narrow” rather than send them to jail, why not send them to a performing arts school? Dissuade their thug persona by helping them expand their artistic perspective, rather than surround them with convicted criminals.

Writers, visual artists, and musicians have come from the impoverished, often criminalized minority for as long as there has been art. In this case, it seems very clear that where Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley are powerless in the face of the system, Mayhem Mal and Soulja Beaz are not. They inhabit a fictional world not unlike the cowboy culture of the old west that has mythologized outlaws and gunfighters. They are feared and respected, not crippled by circumstance. They were given nothing and so they take what they want; it’s a very American archetype.

While at the University of Pittsburgh, I wrote an essay about the “gun culture” that both detailed Richard Poplawski’s gun battle with police and contained a scene where I diagrammed how I would shoot a room full of people (people who coincidentally are as real as the officers mentioned at the top of the song). Was I arrested or questioned by police? No. In fact, I was given an award for it and read the latter scene on local public radio.

The value of art is subjective, but the value of free artistic expression is an intrinsic part of the American ideal. It is all too common in modern society that when art highlights something that makes folks uncomfortable to attack the artist and not the societal truth the art exposes. 


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