Dr. Knox and Mr. Mal


Dominic Victoria, Writer

In 2014, then 19-year old Pittsburgh rapper Jamal Knox, alias “Mayhem Mal,” was sentenced to two years in prison after releasing a song mentioning violence against police officers who had previously arrested him. His appeal landed the case in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The entirely-white court (whose average age was just over 62 at the time) upheld the original decision last August. Now Knox is pushing for the case to be argued at the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

Fortunately for Knox, he appears to have a little more support for his argument this time. Last Wednesday, a group of some of the most influential names in hip hop -including Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Chance the Rapper, and 21 Savage- submitted a brief to SCOTUS in support of Knox. Despite Chief Justice Roberts’ past quotations of Eminem, it is fair to assume that there aren’t too many hip hop fans on the Supreme Court, and the hope is that this brief will not only show support for Knox, but also give the justices some much-needed background on the genre. 

Atlanta-born rapper and activist Killer Mike (born Michael Render) appears to be leading the charge favoring consideration of Knox’s case by the SCOTUS. In a New York Times interview, Render compared Knox’s style of gangsta rap to the similarly-aggressive outlaw country beloved by other American populations, citing the frequently bleak descriptions of violence featured in the lyrics of both genres. Ironically, these country ballads often feature descriptions of real violence- which differs greatly from Knox’s situation. Knox never attempted to carry through with any of the so-called threats made in one song accidentally released on YouTube. And yet, in the case of outlaws, most of us have no trouble distinguishing the character from the real person.


My Take:

In order to gain an understanding of the argument that has been built by Knox’s lawyers, I would like to point you to a word I used previously: “alias”. While the threats of violent activity may seem credible to someone not used to this genre, it is important to realize that in the end, rappers play characters. When speaking in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Knox gave a lengthy statement addressing this idea. “[M]y business is a product… It’s not Jamal Knox being a rapper,” he stated,  “My product is Mayhem Mal. But I don’t want the Court to look at me as Mayhem Mal and Jamal Knox as one person. I want the Court to look at me as Jamal Knox, a human being.” Like many artists before him, Knox built a character, an alias, in his music. However, he is an entirely separate person. The inability of the court to distinguish between a real person and a character is, as Killer Mike remarked, “another form of racial profiling.”

When Jamal Knox was introduced as a young black rapper from inner-city Pittsburgh, the justices had already painted a picture in their heads. Of course, there is no way of knowing what sort of personal experience the court has had with rap… but I think it is fair to assume that a group of 50 to 70-year old justices are not exactly rap aficionados.

Here is what I would ask the justices: do your research. Try to erase that ever-present stereotype that comes to mind when you imagine a young black rapper. Consider the advice of industry experts. And finally, give the genre a real chance. Maybe hardcore, violent rap isn’t up your ally. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. Listen to the soulful choirs of Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, the poetic flows of Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, or the empowering music made by an new generation of female artists headed by Little Simz, Noname, and Cardi B. Sometimes a little bit of context can make you question your preconceived notions about an art form you are unfamiliar with.