Prosecuting Rap: Criminal Justice and UK Black Youth Expressive Culture

On this project, we are examining how rap music and black youth culture have come to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings in the UK.

Man wearing red coloured top

Rap music – spoken-word verse over instrumentation – is the hugely popular musical component of hip-hop culture, which was first developed by black and working-class youth in 1970s New York and went on to become a foremost pop-cultural youth form internationally.

Some UK rappers, like Stormzy, Dave and Wiley, have forged very high-profile and critically-acclaimed careers. Many more young people are amateur rappers who compose rhymes to perform to friends and to record and share on digital platforms. If they come under suspicion of a crime or of anti-social behaviour, police officers have increasingly looked for rap lyrics and videos that feature themes of violence, crime or drug-dealing. Prosecutors then seek to get this cultural material admitted to court to help build their case.

We are leading an exploration of this criminal-justice use of black youth culture and we also seek to intervene in the practice.

  • How are rap lyrics and videos used in UK criminal proceedings?
  • What role does the police play in UK prosecuting rap?
  • How has rap music been used in controversial ‘joint enterprise’ cases, in which multiple defendants are in the dock for one crime? How is rap used to shore up ‘gang’ narratives?
  • How has the news media reported on the use of rap in prosecutions?
  • What properties of rap subgenres like gangsta rap and ‘drill’ make them susceptible to this legal use?
  • What is the role of the cultural industries in prosecuting rap?
  • How can defence counsels best contest such unintended use of rap culture in the courts?
  • What role can scholar-experts play in helping defence counsels scrutinise rap evidence?

This project will focus in on individual trials as case studies to expose the procedural workings of the rap-on-trial phenomenon in the UK. At the same time, it will draw outwards to consider broader trends of the UK prosecuting rap to do with the criminalisation of black youth culture, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, austerity and inequality Britain, and the policing of the young people who make this music.

This project is funded by a Leadership Fellowship (2020-21) from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It builds on the UoM Humanities Strategic Investment Fund-sponsored Prosecuting Rap international workshop (2015-16).

Twitter: @ProsecutingRap

Call for Abstracts

Special issue of Popular Music 40.4 (2021): Prosecuting and Policing Rap

Contributions are invited to a special issue of Popular Music on the complex interface between rap music (taken in its broadest sense to include mainstream rap, gangsta rap, grime, drill, activist rap, etc.) and criminal justice systems around the world.

Details can be found here.

Please send Abstracts (300 words max) + bio (150 words max) to the three co-editors of the special issue by 1 October 2020 (commissioning of articles scheduled for October 2020, with completed commissioned articles by 1 July 2021):

Dr Eithne Quinn, University of Manchester eithne.quinn@manchester.ac.uk

Dr Joy White, University of Bedfordshire <joy.white@beds.ac.uk

Prof John Street, University of East Anglia j.street@uea.ac.uk

Network meetings

Prosecuting Rap expert network meeting (July 2020, University of Manchester).

This closed workshop assembled scholars and experts of rap and black youth culture who have already acted as defence experts or who might like to do so in future. We shared knowledge, identified trends and developed the skills of existing and prospective experts. The objective of the network is to enhance the provision of effective legal expertise on black youth culture to respond to prosecutors’ increasing reliance on rap lyrics and videos in criminal proceedings.

Short pieces and blogs

Lost in translation? Rap music and racial bias in the courtroom (2018, policy@manchester)

Drill Lyrics Are Being Used Against Young Black Men in Court (2020, Vice magazine)

Key Researchers

  • Eithne Quinn, Principal Investigator, University of Manchester. Blog Lost in translation: Rap music and racial bias in the courtroom
  • Latoya Reisner, Research Associate, University of Manchester. Latoya received a Distinction in her Criminology MA, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a BA in Sociology from Salford University. She has worked on a new documentary film on joint enterprise criminal cases and race.
  • Kamila Rymajdo, Research Associate, University of Manchester. Kamila received a Creative Writing PhD from Kingston University and an MA in English Lang & Lit at University of Manchester. Kamila has published scholarly articles on music and cinema and is also a journalist: i-D Magazine’s northern correspondent and writer for MixmagDazed and Vice, focusing on black music genres and club culture.