Publication Date


Document Type



Lauded by some and condemned by others, rap music does not want for a divergence of views on its nature, meaning, or message. The deluge of profanity coupled with vivid images and themes of sex and violence have provided fertile ground for discussion of rap's merits. Critics have characterized rap as "ugly macho boasting," "bombastic, self-aggrandizing," and "repulsive." Rap artist Ice Cube's Death Certificate album was the subject of a rare editorial comment by Billboard magazine deriding the lyrics as "the rankest sort of racism and hatemongering." Detractors fear that the violently negative messages promote a value system that celebrates the decadence of the street.s Providing support for that view, a federal district court in Florida declared the rap group 2 Live Crew's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be legally obscene. In the summer of1992, rap artist Ice-T found himself embroiled in controversy over his song "Cop Killer" which New York governor Mario Cuomo called "[u]gly, destructive and disgusting." Yet, rap has also been praised as reflective of the "wit, energy and hope of a generation ... a positive development in a miserable environment." Even though some rap artists paint vivid pictures of "a harsh and violent world [,... their popularity is based in the basic realism of [the] street life they present. ' It has even been suggested that these "bulletins from the front in a battle for survival" s are so "'threatening precisely because [they are so] bold and ugly."

Now, with all of the controversy, the question seems to be whether or not rap music is protected speech. Does this form of expression with its explicit sex, violence, and profanity fall outside First Amendment protection? Or does it speak from the "gut of disenfranchised America" in such a way that entitles it to every bit of protection the First Amendment" can afford?

This Article considers some of the more violent, profane, and sexually oriented rap music"a in light of three categories of protected expression. 8 The lyrical message of the music and the messages the artists themselves expound in interviews will be carried through the topics of subversive advocacy, offensive language (as it has been derived from the "fighting words" doctrine), and obscenity. The effort is to establish that rap music is a protected form of expression despite its potentially shocking lyrical content.