Anti-racism  •  Britain

Rap lyrics ‘evidence of bad character’ in racist prosecutions

15 September 2023

By Rose Tedeschi

More than 240 people in the UK, almost all young black men, have had their participation in rap music used as evidence of ‘bad character’.

Research conducted by the University of Manchester has identified more than 70 trials from 2020–23 in which police and prosecutors have used evidence including rap lyrics, music videos and audio recordings to build their cases—up from 67 in the entire previous 15 years. In a review of over 30 appeal judgements, Dr Owusu-Bempah, Associate Professor at the London School of Economics, found that black culture is being used as evidence of criminality against ‘young, male, Black defendants’.

The problem is likely to be wider than the figures suggest as researchers have to rely on the publication of judgements or reports in the media, neither of which are guaranteed to mention this type of evidence.

Authorities have latched on to the approach as one that can secure jury convictions by exploiting popular prejudice associating rap music with gang affiliation. As criminal barrister Oliver Mosley notes, ‘few words provoke as much bias among a jury as ‘gang’’.’

Typically, police witnesses will try to draw links between lyrics and real-life crimes, and between music and gang membership, offering ‘translations’ of slang to provide their own meaning behind the song or video. In one example the police interpreted for the jury’s benefit the word ‘ting’ (meaning ‘thing’ or occasionally ‘an attractive woman’) as meaning ‘gun’.

Project Alpha, a Home Office online surveillance initiative, has been trawling for rap content it deems ‘dangerous’ across social media platforms, radio stations and record labels. Facebook and Instagram’s Oversight Board suggested the Met’s ‘intensive focus on one music genre among many that include references to violence raises serious concerns of potential over-policing of certain communities.’

The Crown Prosecution Service claims to have ‘never prosecuted anybody solely on the basis of their involvement with drill/rap music’, and yet advises that ‘drill/rap music may be of specific relevance to the case against a suspect, in which case it may be used as evidence’. This ambiguous ‘guidance’ allows the police to establish a racist framework to incriminate the young black population.

These practices are a result of the endemic racism within the police. The prosecution of music taste is of a piece with the racist ideology permeating the police forces which sees officers using social media to spread racist jokes and post selfies posing over black murder victims.

Workers Power believes that the purpose of the police, as part of the state, is to act as a weapon to oppress ethnic minorities and the working class as a whole. It needs to be abolished. Nevertheless we fight in the here and now for reforms that will weaken the state’s apparatus of repression.

We stand for the election of all judges and magistrates as a basic democratic measure and for the right of black defendants to have a minimum of 50% of black people on juries. ‘Evidence’ based on an individual’s cultural choices should be deemed inadmissible. Ultimately, we fight for workers’ tribunals and workers’ defence organisations to replace these inherently racist institutions by means of a socialist revolution.

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