Rap has a long history of involvement in protest and social commentary.
By Lily Hirsch
In late 2012, the lives of three young black men in Pittsburgh were forever altered. On November 11, Leon Ford, Jr., was stopped by police officers who were looking for a different L. Ford. During the stop, an officer shot Ford five times, leaving him paralyzed. He would never walk again. Four days later, on November 15, police found a video posted online of a rap song written by Ford’s best friend, Jamal Knox, along with another friend, Rashee Beasley. That song, “F* the Police,” led to the arrest of Knox and Beasley — both charged with making “terroristic threats.”
Last month, Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale offered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court a chance to review Knox’s case, filing a petition for redress, undertaken at the discretion of the court. There are many reasons the court should agree to this review. This astounding case channels the incendiary outrage of our times, generated by police shootings — widely covered and all too common — of unarmed black men. The case also points to real concerns about violence against the police, especially after the killing of officers in Dallas earlier this year, and would in fact allow the Court to clarify legal definitions of threat. There is also, of course, the ongoing issue of rap’s abuse at court.
I recently corresponded with Knox, who is still in jail, and he helped me understand how this all happened and what he hopes might come from it in the future.
Knox was born on the North side of Pittsburgh on March 11, 1994. He grew up in Northview Heights, a housing project, and his interactions with the police started early, mostly due to his father’s short fuse and his mother’s proximity to the explosions. One of his father’s stints in prison gave his mother enough time and space to escape. She moved Jamal and his three siblings to the east side of the city, where they could grow up near cousins and away from the regular domestic violence that had marked their earliest years. But she couldn’t take them away from violence completely.
Knox recalls being hit by a stray bullet during an incident in which he was not involved. He says he was “hassled” by officers and learned early to run from the police. It seemed his best recourse. In his letter to me from prison, he wrote: “My resentment became deep because I was hurting and couldn’t understand why.”
Thankfully, Knox found an outlet. In middle school, he discovered poetry — by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Tupac Shakur. He began to write his own in private. Then a friend helped him see how his hobby might translate into music. “My best friend I met in middle school, he was my first producer,” Knox told the court in 2014. “His name is Leon Ford. He had a studio…he asked me one day, do you want to come record in the studio. I said man, I don’t rap. I don’t rap. I write poetry. He said poetry is rap. I said yeah? He said yeah.”
Ford helped Knox find his musical voice and the two started a group called the “Goon Squad.” Though the group didn’t last long, Knox and Ford would always have a strong bond. Knox admits that his path, unlike Ford’s, eventually involved drugs, but he continued to turn to music as a means to express his feelings — the only way he could do so without violence. When Ford was shot, music was naturally Knox’s response.
Rap has a long history of involvement in protest and social commentary. During the 1980s, rap increasingly included social messages and addressed political themes, such as gang violence, poverty, racism, and police brutality. Rap’s perceived swagger and braggadocio often plays into that — projecting strength often in a powerless situation, giving voice to some who feel voiceless. Violence in rap can then be both part of this protest, documenting lived circumstances, or more metaphorical, as a symbol of power. The negative is flipped and the thug is celebrated as outlaw. When I asked Knox whether “F* the Police” was intended as a protest, he said yes. “It was a statement.”
The trial would imply a connection between the song and Ford’s shooting. But protest and its relationship to rap never came up as an explicit defense.
In March 2013, during the preliminary hearing, the defense did point out that use of the term “fuck the police” has long-standing precedent in rap dating as far back as NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” (1988) and Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” (1992). The musical refrain “F* the Police” then is hardly unique, hardly deserving of such unusual sanction. Today, the line has taken on meaning far greater than any one artist, any one example of the genre. Isolated from any particular work, the phrase has become a chant at Black Lives Matter rallies and protests against police violence. And the phrase, in chant or song, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Ice Cube made that clear this summer, vowing to continue performing his iconic contribution to the genre: “I ain’t gonna change nothing I do,” he said, “because I ain’t do nothing wrong.”
But as the prosecution noted, Knox and Beasley’s song referred to two specific Pittsburgh police officers by name, and also referenced the perpetrator of an infamous 2009 shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers — who has since been sentenced to death. One of the named officers was directly involved in a prior arrest of Knox as well as Ford’s traffic stop. The prosecutor argued, “I mean, there was talk about N.W.A. and other rappers, you know, who have made fuck the police songs, and there’s a whole, you know, fuck the police genre. But it doesn’t appear that any of those songs threatened particular police officers.”
According to Nightingale, who was not then a part of the defense, the prosecution’s argument was founded on “a distinction without a difference in the eyes of the First Amendment. Merely calling out specific officers in a song and making reference to a well-known police shooting only bolsters the hyperbolic nature of the song, and at least in this instance did not create an imminent threat.” But at the time, the prosecution’s strategy worked, stripping the song of its First Amendment protection, and the case was held for trial. The judge seemed to view rap as threatening regardless, mentioning “the culture of violence that is rap music,” with no discussion of the roots of such rhetoric in rap — including commercial demands, boasting, and the symbolic use of violence in rap to project power. While there is truth in rap, the music has never been a literal text.
The non-jury trial took place in November 2013 before the president judge of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Both Knox and Beasley were officially charged with making “terroristic threats,” specified at court as “communicating a threat, either directly or indirectly, to commit a crime of violence with the intent to terrorize.” The defense largely focused on two points throughout the trial, which lasted several days. First, the defense argued that Knox and Beasley’s alleged conduct simply did not fit the crimes charged. Second, the defense argued that the song was protected by the First Amendment because it did not amount to a “true threat” as defined by the United States Supreme Court. This was not a direct or indirect communication. Not only was the song discovered on Facebook by a Pittsburgh police officer who was monitoring Beasley’s page under an alias, but the police admitted that neither defendant made the song available online. Terrance Hart, a fourteen-year-old boy, had uploaded the song to Youtube, and it was then linked to Beasley’s Facebook page. But the argument was ineffective against the court’s repeated insistence that the intent was not the point. Rather, the case hinged on the police officers’ perception of the song and its supposed threat, a course since rejected by the United States Supreme Court case Elonis v. U.S, which ruled that intent matters, not perception.
But what about the song itself? Attorneys for the defendants ignored many aspects of “F* the Police” which would have given the lie to the idea that it was a terroristic threat. No one called attention to other voices involved in Beasley and Knox’s rap, including a female one, which would have muddied the issue of ownership and therefore liability. No one described a rather somber motif with a descending pitch in the backing track — one that arguably undercuts the song’s bravado as well as any perceived active message of violence. And no one pointed out a change in timbre and emphasis in the final line of the chorus, which signaled to me, when I first heard the song in 2014 while writing an article on the case, the possibility that the crucial phrase “fuck the police” is actually a sample.
In my letter to Knox, I asked him whether he had sampled “fuck the police” from one of the numerous other songs that contained the phrase. He confirmed that the last line was indeed a sample — from the rapper Soulja Slim, who died in 2003, his shooting death still a mystery. Neither Beasley nor Knox had even voiced the words “fuck the police” on the track.
But, again, the trial had none of this. The only mention of the music came in fact in pre-trial — “The beat had a nice rhyme.” Otherwise, the lawyers ignored the specifics of the music, as well as the history of rap. They treated the lyrics as a literal text, with no expert testimony about the music — the often contested relationship between the lyrics and the backing track, the traditional role of humor and boasting, the connection between violence and commerce in rap, or the ways in which music conditions the meaning of text generally. The song, in short, was not treated as art. And this mistreatment made greater the potential for prejudice.
This is typical of the way rap is treated in a courtroom scenario. As Erik Nielson and Michael Render (aka Killer Mike) wrote in USA Today, “No other fictional form — musical, literary or cinematic — is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with rap music, as well as the misconception that hip-hop and the artists behind it are dangerous.” Indeed, according to a recent study, “the mere label of rap is sufficient to induce negative evaluations” at court.
News outlets covered many of these problems in 2014 (for example, an op-ed in the New York Times and my own piece in the Guardian). Since then, the United States Supreme Court had a chance to make right some of these wrongs in Elonis v. U.S, which also involved the issue of rap as threat — in this case, appealing the conviction of a man sentenced to prison for posting violent lyrics on Facebook. But nothing much came from the redress. The conviction was overturned, but with attention to federal threats law, not the issue of rap. “It didn’t clarify much in the long run,” First Amendment scholar Clay Calvert said in a 2015 Time interview. “They totally missed the rap issue.”
In Knox and Beasley’s case, with no real attention to the music, the only discussion of the lyrics came — believe it or not — from the police officers themselves, who were allowed to describe the lyrics at court, interpreting the song as they saw fit. In so doing, they were able to impose violence on the lyrics whether or not it actually existed: “They said they wanted to kill us and that, you know, they knew our schedule and where we worked, and that they know they would attack us. And there was gunfire throughout the video, and … numerous other terms that you would associate with guns, caliber, stuff like that.”
The judge seemed to accept this uninformed analysis, ruling: “It is abundantly clear to me that the conduct of the defendants here is not protected by the First Amendment because it far exceeds what the First Amendment allows.” Knox and Beasley were both found guilty. At sentencing on March 6, 2014, with about a dozen police officers in attendance, Knox spoke on his own behalf. Though he did not explicitly connect “F* the Police” to protest on behalf of Ford, he did mention his friend. He also talked about the diversity of his music, which had achieved some recognition before his arrest: “I mean I have songs about God. I even make songs about my mom. I even make songs about, you know, how to stop violence.”
It was at this hearing that Mikhail Pappas, then a law student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, met Leon Ford. The two began working to ensure Knox appealed his guilty verdict. Pappas first contacted the ACLU, and after the ACLU declined to take the case, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He connected Knox with Nightingale, who is now his lawyer, and established a startup, Legal Means, to raise awareness and resources in support of Knox’s appeal.
Today, Beasley is free, having served his time, but Knox remains behind bars, due to a drug conviction and punishment for “F* the Police.” Nightingale and Pappas remain hopeful that Pennsylvania’s high court will recognize the importance of Knox’s case. Pappas explains, “The issues involved in this case are at the front and center of our collective conscience as a nation and even our presidential debates. It would be difficult to imagine a case of greater social importance.” And, for Pappas, the case is also personal. “I grew up on the East side right around the way from Jamal. I love rap music. For me, it’s like what Killer Mike, whose dad was a police officer in Atlanta, said in his song ‘R.A.P. Music.’ Rap is so much more than music. It’s a source of salvation. Protecting it is what the very First Amendment is all about. For a court to rule that its mere creation is a criminal act is the ultimate double standard.”
While Ford has found his voice as a mentor and social activist, Knox has maintained more modest ambitions. As he explained at sentencing, “I want the Court to look at me as Jamal Knox, a human being.” In his letter to me, he also made it clear that he plans to continue his work with music. Even after all of this, he will not give up on his art: “It’s how I vent,” he said, whether “happy, sad, or angry.” And he will keep his head up no matter what, urged on by the pride he feels in knowing he is not alone. His case, he believes, is about more than himself: it’s about “every person that’s my complexion.” Justice for Knox, then, would have symbolic value, especially today. It’s about maintaining trust in the justice system. It’s about living up to a promise that justice can be blind. But it’s also about Jamal Knox — one person, a human being, who never should have been convicted for a song.