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