A few weeks ago, a New York Senate State bill became law – promising to get rap lyrics out of courtrooms. On the same day, in the hallowed turf of British jurisprudence, 10 young Black boys appeared in Manchester Crown Court; facing charges that relied heavily on rap lyrics and videos. This is not the first time that the beat of the gavel crashes against rap subgenres like UK drill, nor is this an aberrant departure from legal penal norms. Such evidence of criminal injustice is the norm, nourished by political ideologies of law and order that police ‘race’ through ‘crime’ – by targeting Black music genres as forms of pathological cultural expression that breeds ‘criminality’.
This unjust verdict raised a just furore of public anger, culminating in a well-attended demo that overshadowed another, equally recent artefact of the state’s war against drill music: a piece of ill-informed police-produced ‘analysis’ that describes drill as ‘gang-related music linked to serious violence’. Not unlike the ‘rap on trial’ phenomenon, such baseless copaganda is neither new, nor is it uncommon. Yet, its affective resonance sounds louder than the near-total lack of tangible evidence that could link drill music to violence (see here, here and here) — as law reform and human rights organisations, leading legal professionals and experts in Criminology, youth justice and rap music insistently point out (see here, here and here).
Given the emotive – rather than evidential – weight of such punitive sophistry, however, exposing the fallacies that sanction the criminalisation of drill music becomes imperative. So let us set the record straight about how UK drill is summoned to the defendant’s seat, by exposing legal penal tactics that tell us more about the dangers of racialised, state-sanctioned criminalisation – than they do about beating the menace of rap music.
Banging beats of ‘gang-banging’ culture?
Describing police operations that target ‘gang-related music’, we learn that ‘over 600 pieces’ of online content has been ‘referred and removed’, on the grounds that it ‘glorifies gang mentality and is linked to a specific crime’. Reading on, we find out about ‘gang-related music’ that is ‘commonly referred to as drill’ – although a (bungled) distinction is made between drill’s ‘unapologetically raw and descriptively violent’ nature and ‘gang-related drill music’ which: ‘personalises lyrics and may also use symbolism, which can be linked to offences and could fuel violent gang-related animosity’. This ‘niche youth subculture’, replete with ‘hand gestures and symbolism’ risks making young people ‘naïve to the fact that their appearance in gang-related music and social media posts can identify them as ‘legitimate targets’.
Describing drill as ‘gang-related music’ is deeply problematic, leaving us with the impression that drill is ‘gang-related’ music that ostensibly encourages serious (youth) violence — despite a thin evidence base to substantiate such a claim. What makes drill ‘gang-related’, therefore, has more to do with how drill is policed, than with what drill is or does. Not only is there is no accurate or reliable definition of a ‘gang’ (see here and here), but the ones that are officially used are too broad and selectively applied to particular communities and groups of people that are (racially) criminalised. Worse still, gang association cannot be inferred through appearances in videos with known gang members, when there can be many innocent reasons for associating with gang members; including musical collaborations, or kinship ties.
Equally, first-person narratives of violence delivered in rhyme form are not evidence of wrongdoing: neither as confessions to an offence, nor as expressions of intent to commit an offence. Rap lyrics may be partly or purely performative, fictional, hyperbolic or fabricated even, as is the case with many other music lyrics or literary works. While violent imagery abounds in drill, as it does in Hollywood gangster movies, such content follows the artistic conventions of the genre. Drill rappers consciously exploit narratives of violence, ‘gangsterism’ and ‘criminality’, as a sought-after commodity to be consumed online by followers whose clicks, views, likes and shares can bring fame and material rewards too (see here and here). In fact, such content often aims at pleasing audiences, without necessarily reflecting the reality of rappers’ life(style).
To claim that rappers naively produce such material, therefore, is to be ignorant about why the promise of commercial success can outweigh the risks of being caught in ‘gang warfare’ – especially in social and economic conditions of organised abandonment, urban marginality and dispossession. The same goes for the use of ‘finger guns’ and sometimes actual weapons as props to perform ‘authenticity’, rather than portray reality. Finally, to describe drill as ‘niche’, when it boasts chart-topping hits makes one wonder about how well versed the author is in the very genre they are opining and gathering intelligence on.
Police intelligence is not evidence
Given the many analytical flaws that such ‘police analysis’ commits, it should surprise no one to find out that what is hailed as ‘evidence’ comes in the form of successful court verdicts gleaned from such reputable sources like The Daily Mail and MyLondon. Court decisions, however, are simply the outcome of successful court procedure, not proof of evidential weight in the making of a verdict. They tell us nothing about how a case was made, what evidence it was based on, what expert witnesses were enlisted, or what they are experts in. Just like the author of this College of Policing article, experts for the prosecution are usually cops who specialise in ‘urban street gangs’ with no adequate training, qualifications, or knowledge of drill, rap, or Black youth culture – therefore lacking the necessary expertise to evaluate rap music content according to the artistic conventions and cultural context of rap culture. Whatever knowledge they may have about rap, mostly comes from training programmes that train cops on ‘slang’. Knowledge of ‘slang’, however, educates no one in the art of rap. Rap lyrics are not ‘slang’ that is set to music, but rap verse. Rap may be a type of music that has lyrics, but it is not just lyrics. It is music.
Rap illiteracy, however, is not the only problem here. The ability of police officers to conduct research in a rigorous and methodical manner, is also called into question. The article that is criticised here claims that it uses ‘analysis of music content’, without giving any indication or details of how such analysis was conducted or what methodology was used; drawing on what qualifications and expertise in research methods? And while the article is eponymously peer-reviewed by another colleague, this is a poor substitute for anonymous peer-review processes that typically involve at least two reviewers – who comment anonymously to protect the integrity of evaluation processes, quality assurance and professional research standards.
We could laugh, cry, or laugh to keep ourselves from crying when reading such sloppy, law and order ideology that poses as analysis based on research and expertise. Given the seriousness of the offences that young, mostly Black, working-class people are charged with, however, we may need to rethink what we assume about processes of criminal (in)justice – when they rely on evidence that is no evidence, experts who are not experts and legalistic subterfuges that reveal double standards and amateurism where due process should be. If making or featuring in drill music videos is policed as a ‘crime’, that surely tells us more about the legal penal culture we are socialised in – than it does about the music genres it attacks beat by beat.
By Dr Lambros Fatsis
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for