This year has seen heightened controversy over the relationship between rap music and youth violence in urban areas, especially London. ‘Drill’ – a type of gangsta rap known for striking a pose of menace and alienation, set to sparse yet catchy minor-keyed beats – has replaced ‘grime’ as the main focus for concern and condemnation. But, asks Eithne Quinn, what is really going on here? And with rap music increasingly used as evidence in criminal trials, are dangerous or even racist assumptions being made?
- Drill music, like other sub-genres of rap before it, has been accused of glamorising and inciting violence.
- Court cases regularly use defendant-authored rap music as evidence for the prosecution.
- This ‘evidence’ can be racially inflammatory and often goes unchallenged by defence counsels.
- Defence expert witnesses who understand black youth culture are needed to counterbalance the routine use of police expert witnesses, if we are to ensure fair trials.
Inciting violence or deflecting attention?
A number of stories appeared in the media earlier this year, focusing on new fears around youth crime and rap music, in particular drill rap. Police and politicians have claimed that it incites violence and glamorises criminality. This has led to rappers being given court orders banning them from making music and digital platforms like YouTube being required to take down videos. Others persuasively counter that such policies criminalise the everyday activities of young people and that the authorities are using the music as a scapegoat to deflect attention from deep cuts to youth services in the age of austerity, inequality and surveillance.
What can remain lost in this debate is the extent to which defendant-authored rap is routinely used as a tool by police and prosecutors to shore up criminal cases. Such legal use started long before the advent of drill.
Music as criminal evidence
There are, as yet, no figures on the prevalence of the use of rap music evidence in UK criminal trials. But the practice has been going on for at least 15 years and, without question, I believe the number of cases already runs into the hundreds. A planned project by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) at the University of Manchester intends to create a database to establish its prevalence and courtroom characteristics.
Recently, the use of rap as prosecution evidence has become widespread enough for the Metropolitan police to have formed what it calls its Drill Music Translation Cadre. This is a group of police officers who act as rap expert witnesses for the Crown.
In some trials, there appears to be a direct link between a specific rap lyric or video and the incident under investigation, in which case it is right that it should be scrutinised as evidence in court. However, in many cases prosecutors seek to introduce rap music that has no specific, direct link to the crime in question.
Once in the courtroom, the music can perform powerful work for the Crown. Almost all the defendants in these cases are young, poor, and black. The vast majority of Crown Court judges, jury members, and prosecution lawyers are white. The inflammatory videos and lyrics too easily tap into racist preconceptions and fears.
When a police expert witness from the Cadre took the stand in a recent case, he defined drill as: “typically reflecting life on the streets”, with lyrics that “tend to be gritty, violent, realistic and nihilistic”. This realist frame can seem compelling within the evidentiary context of the courtroom. With defendants advised not to take the stand in their own cases, the danger is that the music comes to speak for the voiceless young people in the dock.
Context and culture
Realism is indeed one pertinent frame for understanding the music. But it is highly misleading to single it out as the only frame, as the police experts do. It erases at least three other frames that complicate the story, which those working in the field of criminal justice need to understand:
- It fails to explain to judge and jurors, typically unfamiliar with rap’s conventions, that gangsta rap music is steeped in longstanding black diasporic oral traditions, complexly shaped by a history of racial marginalization. The braggadocio-laden music adopts the persona of the outlaw or ‘badman’, using well-established tropes and rhetorical devices that undercut the ‘life on the streets’ lens.
- It doesn’t allow that alienated working-class youth of all colours have, for decades, been trying to come up with transgressive subcultural practices to shock, at once, their parents and the mainstream. In a classic study, scholars dubbed this process resistance through rituals.
- It doesn’t acknowledge that rap is an immensely popular youth cultural form of entertainment, and as such is heavily formulaic and fictional. Many thousands of young people in the UK are trying to emulate their rap heroes, be it Stormzy, Bugzy Malone, or now-billionaire gangsta rapper Dr Dre. An aspiration to gain rap recognition and get paid drives the making and content of this music.
All three of these frames interrupt the ‘personal testimony’ realism narrative forwarded by prosecution and police. The state’s pathologizing of black culture, viewing it through an overly-sociological lens, has a long history, as scholars like Patrick Williams have shown.
Troublingly, the expert testimony of police officers, encouraging a literal reading of the rap music, typically goes uncontested. As one criminal defence barrister explained to me this year: ‘Rap lyrics are frequently sought to be adduced by the prosecution in criminal trials, including and especially murder trials, and defence counsel might not be aware that this is an area in which expert evidence can properly be called.’
Expert witnesses, bias, and the courts
When I first started acting as a defence expert in several rap cases a decade ago, the rap ‘evidence’ tended to be lyrics (saved on mobile phones, written in notepads, etc.). Because I had written a monograph on gangsta rap, I was asked to explain their context and meaning.
Things have moved on. With the advances in digital technologies, rappers can make and upload their music and videos practically for free. While this is great for their avid, dispersed fans, it also allows police to trawl through digital platforms, selecting the videos that will be the most inflammatory when played back in court.
This unintended and radically decontextualized use of black youth expressive culture, projected onto screens in courtrooms, can allow prosecutors to lock down their case, even when more conventional, solid evidence is in short supply.
The influential 2017 Lammy Report on race in the criminal justice system, based on a review commissioned by Theresa May, found that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people continue to face bias, feeding into alarming overrepresentation in the system. The report highlighted covert racial bias as a rising problem. Police and prosecutors who don’t want to appear overtly discriminatory can, in using black culture as evidence, let the rap music do the racist signalling for them. In this way they can interpolate judge and jury in ways that are more effective and insidious than using explicit bias.
Learning and counterbalancing: what needs to happen
A growing number of criminal defence lawyers are scrutinising and challenging rap evidence. This number needs to grow further. To support these lawyers and ensure fair trials, there is a need to build a ‘cadre’ of defence experts to counterbalance the routine use of police expert witnesses. In cases where the music bears little direct relevance to the case, defence counsels should use experts to help them exclude the music in pre-trial legal arguments, before it gains a courtroom airing.
This counterbalancing is already well under way in the US, where putting Rap on Trial is shockingly widespread. We must learn from the arguments and playbook developed by US defence lawyers, scholars, activists, and rap practitioners, who have, in a comparable context to the UK, been disputing the loose but effective criminalisation of black youth culture.
Commentators have suggested that rap is the ‘Soundtrack to London’s Murders’, as one New Yorker headline sensationally put it.
What is less widely understood is that rap is now the race-baiting soundtrack in many London courtrooms, too.