Prosecuting Rap: Criminal Justice and UK Black Youth Expressive Culture, which I joined as a researcher in early 2020, looks at how lyrics and videos from rap subgenres like drill are being presented as hard evidence by prosecutors in serious crime cases.
Our preliminary findings are extremely concerning. They show there has been a surge in cases using rap lyrics and videos as evidence since the mid 2010s, regarding serious offences ranging from assault to murder, drug conspiracy and weapon possession cases. The practice occurs in courtrooms in urban areas across England, where prosecutors typically rely on the testimony of police officers to decode the rap rather than someone who actually understands the lyrics.
The prosecution often say lyrics and videos are relevant to the incident because they believe it amounts to a confession or threatening intent, prove so-called gang affiliation or offer evidence of a propensity to violence.
For instance, in one not untypical 2018 conspiracy and assault case, eight defendants were in the dock facing serious charges and seven drill videos featuring some of the defendants were played in full in court. The police “rap interpreter” made no effort to explain to the jury that widely vilified drill music is a highly successful, if violence-themed, youth-cultural expressive form built on metaphor and braggadocio – instead presenting its violent posturing as “street realism” to be taken literally.
The Crown also failed to attribute any of the transcribed lyrics to individual defendants, letting the lyrics “speak for” them all instead. The videos were also presented without post dates. It turned out that some of the videos the prosecution sought to rely on were first released years before the incident – perhaps chosen for their stereotype-conjuring optics rather than their probative value.
Dr Eithne Quinn – who started the Prosecuting Rap project and has served as a rap expert for the defence in well over a dozen cases (including this one) – says that this use of rap as evidence by the Crown is extremely worrying. Rap lyrics, she says, are not simple confessions of guilt – even though they can sometimes be linked to real-world violent incidents – and appearing in a drill video doesn’t prove dangerous association.
“Drill strikes an insolent, provocative, self-stigmatising pose that police and prosecutors have increasingly realised works well for them in courtrooms. But, of course, rap lyrics and videos should not be taken at face value,” she says.
While it is well publicised in America, there isn’t yet much public understanding in the UK of the role of rap lyrics and videos in criminal proceedings. This is especially worrying because nearly all defendants are Black or mixed race young men or boys and the practice conjures stereotypes of Black youth as inherently violent.
According to a HM Inspectorate of Prisons report published in 2019, more than half of the inmates held in prisons for young people aged 12 to 18 in England and Wales are from a Black and minority ethnic background, a statistic which hasn’t changed in 2020. Responding to new data published on 13th August, Youth Justice Board for England and Wales Chair Keith Fraser said: “Black children are still more likely to be arrested, more likely to be held in custody on remand, receive generally harsher penalties and, shockingly, children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds now make up more than half of all children in custody.”
My project investigates whether using rap as evidence is helping to fuel unfair disproportionality in the UK justice system, by identifying patterns in UK cases.
In many cases involving rap, prosecutors use lyrics and videos to forward a “gang” narrative. Dr Richard Bramwell, author of 2015’s UK Hip-Hop, Grime and the City: The Aesthetics and Ethics of London's Rap Scenes, who’s acted as a defence expert witness in two trials and is part of the Prosecuting Rap network, has a poignant example. He says that in one of the cases he served in, the police interpreter translated the word “bredrin” as “associate”, which he says “is an interpretation that matches more easily to the police’s definition of a gang associate, but is not accurate”.
The use of lyrics in helping forward gang narratives is extremely problematic, Dr Quinn explains. “In some cases, drill artists may have links to street gangs; in many other cases they don’t. And how is the state defining a gang? It’s a notoriously loose yet racially inflammatory term.
“For some Black kids, stigmatised and overpoliced, the toxic ‘gang’ label, once you scratch the surface, seems to be little more than who your friends are, what music you like and where you live.”
Quinn argues that the ways in which violent, gangsta-themed raps are used to shore up cases “can help to convince juries to sweep groups of young Black defendants into one guilty conviction”.
Through an in-depth review of appeal cases, law scholar Dr Abenaa Owusu-Bempah, who is also part of the wider Prosecuting Rap network, concurs, finding that "rap music is commonly presented as 'bad character evidence' against Black young men and boys, often as a way for the prosecution to link them to gangs. In many cases, this is done with little consideration of how the evidence will prejudice the jury against the defendant, while vastly overestimating its probative value".
The prosecution’s characterisation is then amplified by the media, creating a vicious cycle.
Latoya Reisner, a Prosecuting Rap research associate identifies that rappers charged with serious offences are very negatively portrayed in press coverage. She cites the example of popular drill artist Unknown T, who in 2019 was charged with murder in a joint enterprise case.
“Unknown T was labelled as the murderer in some of the newspaper coverage along with his rapper status,” she says, underlining this was before his trial, which concluded with a not guilty verdict. “You begin to see how print media can fuel the wrong narrative towards an individual, which then fuels the public perception and can add to public anxieties. It's really dangerous and also really damaging, especially when the individual is innocent,” she says.
What’s encouraging is that there’s been some pushback. “There are some switched-on defence teams who have had success getting misleading rap evidence excluded in pre-trial legal arguments so that it never gets before the jurors, which happened in the case of Unknown T’s trial,” Dr Quinn tells me.
But she stresses that “we need more experts who are geared up to support defence counsels in scrutinising and challenging rap evidence and the practice must be challenged more systemically”.
Given the alarming overrepresentation of young Black men and boys in the criminal justice system and how prejudicial rap evidence is, those in the Prosecuting Rap network are also increasingly asking whether rap culture should ever be used in courtrooms.