Drill music, gangs and prosecutions – challenging racist stereotypes in the criminal justice system

Friday 28 August 2020

In an attempt to rebalance the scales in the legal arena, the Garden Court Chambers Criminal Defence Team is running a series of online events that examine the State’s criminalisation of Black youth through racist stereotypes of gangs and Drill music.

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Music censorship is not a new phenomenon in the UK. In 1977 the BBC instituted a total ban on radio airplay of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, considering the song in ‘gross bad taste’ in the Silver Jubilee year. The effect, of course, was that the single sold in large numbers. Seven years later Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single ‘Relax’ received similar opprobrium and accordingly similar success. But neither John Lydon or Holly Johnson ever faced the threat of criminal sanction for playing their music. Nor did the members of N.W.A. in the US when in 1988, several countries refused to play their single ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Though the FBI did write to the group’s record company complaining about the lyrics. However, in recent years in England a new genre of rap has marked a new low in the authorities’ chequered relationship with music.

‘Drill’ is often credited as beginning in 2011 with a Chicago rapper called Chief Keef. It is characterised as a rap offshoot with dark lyrics reflecting the lives and experiences of the artists set to ominous beats derived from the ‘trap’ genre. The music soon found its way to England where young people across our cities wrote lyrics addressing the reality of their lives often accompanied by videos of young men in balaclavas issuing warnings to rivals.

“Drill is 21st Century, urban commentators of the day, the sounds of the streets, it’s the new sounds through which young people can express themselves”, Yemi Abiade, Music Journalist

It was not long before the music came to the attention of the police and prosecuting authorities while sections of the media indulged their favourite pastime of creating moral panic. In May 2018, it was reported YouTube had taken down over 30 Drill videos upon direct request from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. The police claimed the music was often linked to violence, drugs and gang rivalry.  Yet at the same time prominent Drill artists such as Headie One began to achieve fame through their music. Last year much excitement and anticipation heralded Dave’s release of his first Drill track ‘Paper Cuts’.

However, two years ago West London group 1011 admitted charges of conspiracy to commit violent disorder after being arrested in possession in weapons. As well as prison sentences the group were each given Criminal Behaviour Orders for three years. Those orders banned them from rapping about a number of topics and requiring them to notify police about any new videos or performances they had planned. While the police denied trying to censor their music organisations such as Index on Censorship took a different view. The same year rappers Skengdo and AM were issued with an injunction again prohibiting them from addressing certain topics and also performing their material. In 2019 they breached the injunction by performing the track ‘Attempted 1.0’ at a gig in Camden and received suspended prison sentences.

The backlash was instant with groups such as Liberty and Index on Censorship warning that the orders were unprecedented and a clear attack on civil liberties. We are concerned that wide ranging bans and the introduction of lyrics and videos in trials is criminalising our Black youth. Since the dawn of popular music people have committed the reality of their lives to verse and sometimes graphically; often metaphorically. Rapper, Abra Cadabra says “targeting music is a distraction”, and “our art is imitating our life, not the other way round”. As with any genre of music those aspiring to success emulate or borrow from those who have gone before them. However, blinded by literalism the authorities see only one interpretation. Never mind that some young people see Drill as a means of escape from lives of social deprivation. Many of those who have made the genre famous have gone on to create companies and jobs for their communities.

“If music can take you around the world, you can bring your friends with you, would you rather them in the street or the studio”, Krept, Rapper and Entrepreneur, on Good Morning Britain

It is too simplistic to say that Drill has led to a rise in gun and knife crime. As pointed out by Dr Bennett Kleinberg and Dr Paul McFarlane – both based in UCL Security and Crime Science – “To the best of our knowledge, there is no publicly available empirical evidence that drill music language incites violent crime”.

Garden Court’s series of online events will examine the way in which rap music – Drill, Grime – is treated by the criminal justice system. We will set out the background and context – so often misunderstood by the prosecution and the judiciary – by giving a platform to those most knowledgeable about the music and its roots. We will then consider how the law deals with this music as well as gangs in the form of bad character evidence and Criminal Behaviour Orders. In addition, we will focus on prosecution and defence expert evidence and its admissibility. These events will focus on the Metropolitan police’s ‘gang matrix’ and its role in trials while also detailing criticism of the matrix and how it is compiled.

Our first event will be on Tuesday 8 September 2020 at 5pm with a further five events in the series to follow. Full details and how to book can be found here

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