DEEP DIVE: JUST HOW FAR CAN YOU GO IN YOUR LYRICS? A LEGAL PERSPECTIVE
Drill music, whether it’s Chicago, New York or it’s London counterparts, is infamous for having very ‘direct’ lyrics. Direct at best, outright horrifying at worst. The debate is one nearly as old as rap itself - one on hand, rappers can only be expected to rap what they know about, and if they’re from a background that’s affected by crime, is it right to censor their points of view?
On the other hand, words have power; is rapping lyrics about crime or violence on a song to be sung back by anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands glorifying violence? And if so, should it be taken seriously by the law?
So many rappers have been wrapped up in this controversy as law enforcement keep an increasingly watchful eye on rappers and their lyrics - from Shmurda to Lethal Bizzle, all the way back to NWA. But today, I’m going to put my law degrees to use and try and find an answer to the question once and for all - just how far can you go with your lyrics in drill?
WHAT ABOUT FREEDOM OF SPEECH?
In an ideal world, I’d say that legally you should go as far as you want to. We’re all responsible for our actions and words at the end of the day and as long as it stays rap, you should be able to rap about whatever you want. If it happens to touch on some topics that people removed from inner city backgrounds would find insensitive - that’s life.
Rap lyrics should undoubtedly fall under the right to freedom of speech and expression, a right protected in law by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This includes the right to “impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”.
However, we don’t live in an ideal world. Freedom of speech realistically has to have limits and rights will never come without responsibilities. That reality has affected drill rappers time and time again.
Article 10 is split into two parts, the first of which shows you the rights, and the second part letting you know that sometimes they’ll need to be taken away: or as they put it - ‘subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’. That is to say, the state will restrict the right to free speech if it’s deemed necessary.
How is this achieved?
We know that the police work actively with Youtube to target and remove any particularly controversial drill videos as part of ‘Operation Domain’ - their gang targeting scheme. Starting back in 2015, you’re probably aware of the impact of the operation, which saw several classic drill songs getting uploaded to some seedier websites that won’t be named.
And Youtube is more than happy to comply - as of 2019, out of the 139 requests for videos to be removed, only 15 of those videos stayed up. Hell, we just saw drill fan favourite Nito NB have a video removed last week.
What’s more is that Operation Domain isn’t limited to video takedowns. It’s been reported that ‘anyone identified in the videos can be targeted with action, including criminal behaviour orders’ (more on those later). Business Insider reported that as of last year, at least 20 convictions have been made out of Operation Domain, and 18 of those convictions resulted in prison sentences.
The reality of the situation is that yes, you can say what you want. But words have consequences and the Met are keeping a watchful eye for whenever you cross the line.
WHAT ABOUT THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS?
One way that people tend to believe they are protected is the statute of limitations. It might be tempting to believe that if enough time passes, you’ll have the freedom to rap about all your old badness. This is only half true - it’s more of an Americanism that doesn’t fully apply on this side of the Atlantic.
In the states if you commit a crime and enough time passes, that crime will eventually be barred from prosecution.
The UK does have the Limitation Act 1980 - but it only applies to civil and not criminal claims. This means that unless your favourite drill rapper is rapping about breaching a contract 6 or more years ago, this isn’t really relevant. And if your lyrics hit the courts and they find out it supports evidence of a crime committed even a decade ago, they won’t hesitate to bring it up.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRIAL?
When I first came up with this article, it was looking into how rap lyrics, from a common sense point of view, can’t be admissible as evidence in a trial. However, looking into the reality of the situation it wasn’t going to be that simple.
Rap lyrics are increasingly being studied and taken apart in court to establish a criminal link. The best example is Valenti - an Essex based rapper whose tune was ‘decoded’ in court by an ‘expert witness’ who translated the rap slang to English to allow the judge to sentence him.
No, you read that sentence right. ‘Rap translators’. And it’s only getting worse. The Met has reportedly formed the Drill Music Translation Cadre - a unit of police officers who will act as expert witnesses to decode lyrics in trial. The sad thing is these police officers are probably just fans themselves.
At best any rap bar should be considered hearsay evidence, which is inadmissible in a criminal trial under s.114(1) of the Criminal Justice Act. To make it admissible there are several hoops you have to jump through, one of those being that it has to be in ‘the interests of justice’.
But rap lyrics nowadays are being used as ‘bad character’ evidence, defined as ‘evidence of, or a disposition towards misconduct’. By relying on this route, the prosecution can paint an ugly narrative and get the jury on side.
Law professor Andrea Dennis (University of Georgia) states: “When courts permit the prosecutor to admit rap music lyrics as evidence, they allow the government to obtain a stranglehold on the case.”
‘KEEPING IT REAL’
So what are the motivations behind treating rap lyrics like this? You could make an argument that crime and rap have a correlation, especially in drill and other forms of trap where rappers will brag about their crimes or speak on things they are involved in. "Self-snitching" isn’t a commonly used phrase for no reason - look at Bobby Shmurda. Nearly everyone named in his iconic song ‘Hot Nigga’ was involved in the same charges he was.
But let’s be honest - if you are getting all your evidence from Rap Genius you are looking in the wrong place.
It’s all very telling. The Police will only engage with black culture on a literal level to be looked on criminally, rather than looking at the fact that not even fans take all the lyrics literally. All you need to do is look at is Rick Ross, 50 Cent or even Drake, all three of which are huge, highly regarded rappers who will put on the most fictional bad boy image that even they themselves don’t take entirely seriously.
It’s all entertainment at the end of the day. Like 50 said in Hustler’s Ambition - ‘America’s got a thing for this gangsta shit’. And from my perspective, playing a song in a courtroom is about as serious as arresting Christian Bale and charging him based on his crimes committed in The Dark Knight.
The UK have proven time and time again that they will take the California approach to policing black people in the UK - from Theresa May enlisting a West Coast ‘gangbuster’ police chief to address the London riots, LA has a history of wrapping any perceived black criminal activity as gang related as a one way ticket to conviction.
The argued motivations are always shaky at best, but one commonly recurring motivation is ‘street cred’. West coast rapper Drakeo The Ruler, who is currently incarcerated based on a very shaky case that saw his music videos played in court as evidence of a gang murder, spoke on this, pointing out the stupidity: “You can get street credit off anything these days… How do you define street credit? I can get street credit for having chains on.”
Fortunately, the case law in the UK shows that rap lyrics are only criminalised in specific, targeted situations. We’re nowhere near as bad as the US, where rap lyrics are used as evidence and evidence alone. But there are situations where the courts will take it on themselves to look into just exactly what you’re saying in your songs.
That’s where you may be familiar with how rappers end up getting their music brought up in court in the first place. Scribz, Digga D and 1011, as well as Skengdo and AM have all been given court restrictions on their music careers, with Digga’s going as far as requiring him to submit his music to the authorities before release.
Skengdo and AM’s was one of the most severe, after their music release was directly criminalised by their conditional order. They were hit with a 9-month suspended sentence after a simple performance, proving that once you get caught in a CBO, your music, rather than your actual actions, can hurt you a lot more than you would expect.
9 months in the music industry is a long time and can cause serious setbacks if you want to perform more music so just know that if you’re hit with one of these, your lyrics will be under more scrutiny than ever.
So that sums it up - if you were interested in how a drill lyric can cross the line in the eyes of the law, I hope this article was informative and sheds some light on the criminalisation of drill - which in my opinion is fuelled by a culture shock and a failure to appreciate the music and the culture in general. If you want to read more, I’ve linked my references below.