What kind of society sends young men to jail and ruins lives because of the lyrics in a song?
By Ciaran Thapar,2023-01-31
Recently, I stood on a raised court podium being cross-examined by a roomful of barristers. I was there as an “expert witness” to the case in hand – a group of young Black men from a small English city charged with conspiracy to possess a firearm – which mostly involved commenting on the extensive use of rap lyrics as evidence.
Local police officers had transcribed, translated and interpreted songs and YouTube music videos, many of which had been recorded and released more than five years before the alleged crime, to make their case. I’d maintained that the vast number of lyrics under consideration were not proof of any wrongdoing. They were violent and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, full of bravado and threats, for sure. But they were also outdated, clearly performative and not to be taken literally.
This experience is one of many during my time over the past two years as a witness in criminal trials where social media and music content has been mined for evidence, usually to demonstrate the guilt of groups of young, Black men. It’s a growing trend: alongside Telegram messages, music videos and lyrics were used in a landmark case in Manchester last year, which resulted in 10 Black men being convicted of being part of a violent conspiracy. This development should ring alarm bells about the direction in which British civil society is heading.
As a youth worker and writer, one of the most consistent strands of my professional life, which I’ve recently started documenting in my newsletter ALL CITY, has been forging a dialogue with young men who rap. I’ve held check-ins with boys to dissect the lyrics scribbled in the back of their exercise books, funded students to set up recording equipment at home during lockdown, and delivered workshops about music culture at pupil referral units, secondary schools and youth clubs across the UK. Meanwhile, I’ve interviewed some of the UK’s most successful rappers, including Dave, J Hus, Digga D and Ghetts.
I’ve therefore gained a vantage point from which to view the landscape of UK rap and drill music. On the one hand, these genres have become a world-beating micro-economy while churning out award-winning, chart-topping releases. They’ve paved a path for a whole generation of marginalised young people to follow. On the other, concern about the perceived glorification of violence in lyrics and videos persists.
“Since its original conception, hip-hop and its descendant genres have been the topic of a chicken-and-egg debate,” I wrote in my first piece about drill, six years ago. I went on to ask whether violent lyrics honestly reflect social reality and therefore serve the purpose of empowering their artists, or if they reinforce and exacerbate the issues they describe. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
As serious youth violence soared in 2018, in the media frenzy that ensued there were calls to apply terrorism legislation to drill rappers. The Metropolitan police started issuing criminal behaviour orders (CBOs) – the modern version of antisocial behaviour orders (asbos) – and “gang injunctions” – applied without a need for evidence to anyone over 14 who is suspected of being in a gang – to young, disproportionately Black musicians. They banned artists from performing and recording songs without permission.
The Met also began requesting the removal of music videos from YouTube. There is no proof that doing so helped to stem violence. Cancelling UK drill music was the PR stunt of a Tory government seeking to give the impression of tackling crime firmly. But it was lazy alarmism.
As the pandemic focused public attention elsewhere, these hardline attitudes have trickled deeper into the criminal justice system. Police and prosecutors now prolifically mine rap lyrics and videos for evidence. Any teenager charged with a crime who might have scribbled some apparently criminal lyrics on their smartphone can suffer perverse consequences .
Lyrics are commonly relied on even when there is a lack of other forensic proof. When it’s a certain demographic of young men, investigators can sit in front of YouTube, listen to lyrics and grab screenshots of videos gathering material sufficient for an argument about a defendant’s bad character or gang membership to crystallise. It is a dangerously wrongheaded approach.
First, rap lyrics are not unequivocally literal. From the pioneering New York sounds of the 1980s and 1990s to the soundsystem and pirate radio clashes of UK grime throughout the 2000s, MCs have long laid lyricism over beats for performance and entertainment. Even when they are ostensibly violent, their words are generally, like literature, mythology or paintings, artful expressions; simulacra of lived experience.
UK rap and drill music is no different. But because these subgenres have developed in the influencer-driven social media economy, their lyrics blur the line between reality and virtual reality even more. Succeeding can require playing the dirty game of grabbing audiences’ shortening attention spans with deceptive, shock-and-horror tactics. Treating videos and lyrics as if they are automatically confessional signals a rushed lack of humility, nuance or cultural sensitivity.
Yet I’ve seen police officers translate a rapper’s taunts about an “opp” (enemy) getting stabbed as a first-person admission of having committed the stabbing. A hyperbolic brag about firing a gun can be turned into an admission of physically owning and using one.
On the very rare occasions that violent lyrics are demonstrably literal and specific, it’s still practically impossible to credibly prove the author’s involvement in actual wrongdoing to a criminal standard without convincing forensic evidence.
Second, rap lyrics are meant to be heard by a listener, not read off a sheet of paper. Rappers invent slang, ad-lib, switch between flows, hit different time pockets, raise and lower their voices, cry and whisper, sing and state, dominate and soften. Each recording can be a purgation of negative emotions. It can also be an immature moment of adolescent fun. But as soon as raps are transcribed by someone else, their original purity is diluted. Having a police officer, of all people, translating and interpreting them cuts them off entirely from their roots.
Third, the police process of scanning the internet for music content before typing up pages of lyrics and providing specific commentary to vague snippets of musical evidence must be mind-numbingly time-consuming – and a mammoth waste of taxpayer-funded resources.
And there are, of course, repercussions of criminalising music for wider society. It’s no bad thing for young musicians to be aware of the law, but forcing them to suppress feelings of exclusion and hide experiences of violence by demonising what is, for many, their only expressive and creative outlet, will make things worse in the long term.
Society and prosecutors need to think again. Lyrics should be banned as pivotal criminal evidence. This is not about letting people off the hook, being soft on crime or permitting horrific social media content to circulate. It’s possible to be strict and critical about these things without being authoritarian.
We should just expect better from our justice system. And we should certainly protect young people who don’t otherwise have a voice.
Ciaran Thapar is a London-based youth worker and author of Cut Short. He writes about youth culture, social change and city life and has a weekly newsletter called ALL CITY
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