Spot the difference: rap lyrics or serious threat of violence?

The task of distinguishing between an expression of artistic creativity and a real and frightening threat will soon occupy the minds of the judges of the US supreme court

Let’s play a little game I just invented. Ready? Good. It’s called Violent Threat or Harmless Bit of Artistic Expression.

Let’s start with this: “All I wanted to do was rape the bitch and snatch her purse. Now I wanna kill her, but so I gotta catch her first.”

If you recognised those as the lyrics of an Eminem song – in other words, a harmless bit of artistic expression – then give yourself a clap on the back. What about this?

“I just want to drag your lifeless body to the forest and fornicate with it, but that’s because I’m in love with you.”


Yep, harmless artistic expression again – courtesy of Tyler, the Creator, formerly sponsored by Pepsi.

Now this: “If I only knew then what I know now, I would have smothered your ass with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek, and made it look like a rape and murder.”

Ding. That one is actually an ugly and violent threat posted on a man’s Facebook page, which saw him sentenced to 44 months in prison.

Tricky, isn’t it: distinguishing between an expression of artistic creativity and a real and frightening threat. In fact, it is a conundrum that will soon occupy the minds of the judges of the US supreme court.

Later this year, the court will rule on the case of Pennsylvania man Anthony Elonis, who was convicted and sentenced to 44 months for making threats against his estranged wife and an FBI agent on Facebook. Elonis wrote things on his page such as, “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts”.

In another post, he suggested that he might carry out a school shooting, prompting a visit by two FBI agents. “Enough elementary schools in a 10-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”

After the FBI called on him, he returned to Facebook to say that it took “all the strength I had” not to slit the female agent’s throat and “leave her bleeding from her jugular in the arms of her partner”. At his trial, the judge instructed the jurors that to convict, they had to conclude that this was not merely exaggeration or transitory anger, that his Facebook posts amounted to “true threats” in the eyes of a reasonable person. But Elonis argued that he was just mimicking rap songs, that there was no intent to threaten and that he is protected under free speech.

Social-media threats

The case is interesting firstly because it is likely to finally determine when threats made on social media should be taken seriously by the law. But more than that, it is being seen as a judgment on whether violent, misogynistic rap and hip-hop lyrics should be allowed to set a new threshold for the language it is acceptable for men to use towards women.

Many experts believe that the judgment against Elonis will ultimately be overturned because what he said simply doesn't go further than what is now culturally the norm. "The context of rap music these days suggests that what Elonis put out there really isn't all that unusual for what's going on on Facebook and what's going on in the popular culture," Prof William Marshall of the University of North Carolina told NPR Radio.

Disturbing, isn’t it? But Marshall is right. If it is acceptable for musicians to rap about rape and violence; if it’s acceptable for comedians to make jokes about it; if it’s acceptable for us to listen to songs about rape, and to re-enact rape fantasies in video games, and to watch simulated rape on YouPorn, then where do we draw the line? Do we declare it is all right to indulge in explicit and violent rape fantasies, and to share them with others, even the intended target, as long as you’re getting paid for it?

Glorifying violence

Ultimately, that is an example of why rape culture matters. It matters because the target demographic for artists such as Eminem, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne – and countless other puppets for a music industry whose dirty little secret is that glorifying violence against women is profitable – are young men. It matters because of the studies that have shown that men who listened to lyrics and viewed music videos depicting sexual violence were more likely to express misogynistic beliefs and engage in sexually aggressive behaviour.

And it matters because lawyers for men such as Anthony Elonis can stand before the supreme court and argue that it is acceptable for him to make graphic and violent threats against two real women, and children in an elementary school, because what he said is no worse than anything climbing its way up the download charts.

Too often, discussions about rape culture focus on individual lyrics and performers. But that’s letting the music industry, which has very deliberately set about incubating that culture, off the hook. Misogyny pays: that’s why somewhere between 22 and 37 per cent of rap lyrics feature sexist and degrading lyrics. It’s letting the corporations who sponsor these artists and make themselves stakeholders in the abuse and degradation of women off the hook. And it’s letting those of us who download and listen to this music, doing our bit to encourage the spread of rape culture, off the hook. A harmless bit of artistic expression? I don’t think so.