Eithne Quinn (University of Manchester, UK)

London drill, racism and joint enterprise criminal cases [BACK]

Abstract: This paper considers the use by prosecutors of rap lyrics and videos composed by defendants in recent serious crime cases in London. The use of rap evidence against defendants in court cases is not new and it is not restricted to the controversial subgenre of Drill. However, since Drill’s UK emergence in the mid-2010s, with its blustering tales of precarity, violence and crime, such unintended legal use of rap in criminal proceedings has surged. When a young person falls under suspicion of a crime, police increasingly look for rap materials to rely on as incriminating evidence. The prosecution will then try to rely on it as evidence of motive, confession, propensity to violence, or gang association. In joint enterprise and conspiracy cases, in which there are multiple defendants in the dock, rap lyrics and videos can help create a ‘dangerous narrative’ that draws groups of young people together in loose yet criminalizing ways. It can be very effective for the prosecution. Judge and juries tend to have limited skills in decoding rap lyrics and videos—with little sense that rap’s strong truth claims (‘keeping it real’) should not simply be taken at face value.

I have acted as a defence expert in London criminal cases in which the Crown has sought to admit rap lyrics and videos as evidence against defendants. I will briefly consider two of these cases, focusing on multi-defendant trials, to illustrate how rap music can be used in ways that lead to racial bias and unfair outcomes. I argue that more scholar-experts are needed to help defence counsels scrutinize and challenge the reliance on rap in our courtrooms.

Bio: Eithne is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester and an AHRC leadership fellow on the project Prosecuting Rap: Criminal Justice and UK Black Youth Expressive Culture (2020-21). She is the author of Nuthin’ but a G Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (Columbia University Press, 2005) andA Piece of the Action: Race and Labor in Post-Civil Rights Hollywood (Columbia University Press, 2019), winner of the 2020 British Association for American Studies Book Prize.

1 thought on “Eithne Quinn (University of Manchester, UK)”

  1. Thanks so much for this Eithne. Such a great insight into the uses and abuses of rap music in the criminal justice system.

    I was reminded of the Plan B song ‘Knoxville Girl’ which begins with a sample of a murder ballad by the Country Music duo The Louvin Brothers to flag up the fact that violence in the lyrics of popular music is nothing new, but is interpreted very differently depending on context, and who the vocalists are.

    Is it your impression that the police who interpret drill lyrics literally and without attribution do so in good faith, or is there a deliberate elision there? Although perhaps that is not a question you are able to answer!

    The work you do is really interesting and valuable. I’d like to learn more about it.

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