Rap lyrics
used in trials

Rhymes used as evidence of guilt. Critics say trend is discriminatory

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The use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials is on the rise in the UK and could be creating prejudice against defendants, according to experts.

Delegates at Prosecuting Rap, a summit at the University of Manchester last month, heard that prosecutors in gang-related cases are presenting rhymes with violent themes as evidence of their writers’ guilt or bad character. The phenomenon follows a spike in similar cases in the US in recent years.

However, those with knowledge of gangster rap and grime – its British offshoot – say their evidential value is limited, since the lyrics are frequently fictional and formulaic. They warn that the use of rap lyrics by prosecutors is discriminatory, since the people accused in such cases tend to be black and on low incomes.

Playing on stereotypes

Criminal solicitor Khalid Missouri, whose cases have included a murder suspect who was convicted partly on the basis of his rap lyrics, said: “Let’s call this what it is – racism. By presenting these rhymes as hard evidence, prosecution teams are playing on stereotypes of these defendants and this type of music. All it takes is a conservative juror who takes a dim view of rap and it can prejudice a case. It’s very worrying.”

No research has yet been published on the issue but delegates at the conference heard that the use of lyrics as evidence is thought to be on the rise in UK trials, with police spending time and resources trawling for information that could support their cases on social media channels, phones
and computers.

In the US, rap lyrics have been used to bolster thousands of cases – including capital trials where the accused may face the death penalty. But despite generally being written in the first person, the verses do not necessarily echo real life. In a genre obsessed with respect, aspiring rappers often resort to clichés and tropes to gain kudos among friends and a foothold in the industry. References to “drive-bys”, “feds”, weapons and violence are commonplace.

“Riding on a mission”

In one of Missouri’s cases, 17-year-old Jermaine Callum from South London was convicted for a gangland assassination after verses found on his mobile phone were used to link him to the crime, despite the identification of the evidence being shaky. A draft text message contained lyrics which talked of “riding on a mission” and mentioned a “mac” – the type of automatic weapon used in the killing.

Missouri said: “The prosecution saw a correlation between this reference to a mission and the fact there was CCTV of two people riding on bicycles away from the murder scene. But in rap videos a mission always involves a car, not a pushbike. I really feel that using this as evidence is scraping the barrel. If a rap clearly confesses to a crime, giving names and places and details, then that is different. But writing about violence doesn’t mean someone has committed violence or even that they are a threat.”

Negative public perceptions

The Callum trial is one of five cases to have used University of Manchester cultural historian Dr Eithne Quinn as an expert witness. The author of a book on gangster rap, she warns that miscarriages of justice can arise if rap lyrics are taken at face value and believes police cherry-pick sections of verse to suit their cases. In another of Quinn’s trials – also a murder – the judge agreed the lyrics would be prejudicial and struck them out before the jury had even heard them.

She said: “Violence and gang-related themes are central to the highly successful gangster rap formula. This use of personas and the negative public perceptions about rap music make it very susceptible to misinterpretation.

“Judges and juries – usually with little knowledge and a negative view of rap – can easily believe that first-person violent verse is personal testimony, when it should not normally be considered as autobiographical.

“There’s a strange irony in the fact that these young people are expressing themselves and getting into trouble for it. No other art form is used in this way in criminal proceedings. Quentin Tarantino’s films are very violent but that doesn’t mean he is of bad character. If people have committed a crime then police should find hard evidence.”

Photo: Eithne Quinn is a rap specialist (Jason Lock)

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