On 25 February 2021, JUSTICE published their report on tackling racial injustice in the youth justice system. The report found that 52% of those in custody aged 10-17 were from an ethnic minority background, compared to 18% of the general population. It identified that the misunderstanding of Drill music as an incitement to violence was contributing to this over-representation of minority ethnic youths in the criminal justice system.
Overview of findings of the report relating to Drill music
The JUSTICE report is wide ranging and makes a number of key recommendations and findings. This overview will highlight the commentary specifically related to Drill music.
By way of background Drill is a musical genre, consisting of rap accompanied by a trap beat. It is characterised as a rap offshoot with dark lyrics reflecting the lives and experiences of the artists. It has exploded in popularity in recent years with many Drill artists now having mainstream success.
- The report describes the misuse of Drill music to secure convictions as a ‘profound example’ of the systemic racism which has left Black culture repeatedly under attack in this country [page 2]
- The report also addresses the issues with the focus on ‘gangs’ as dangerous groups who are the root of serious violence among BAME individuals. It explains that the creation and performance of Drill music is worryingly being used as evidence of gang association in joint enterprise prosecutions. It notes that the creation of music is a typical expression of youth culture and using the creation of Drill in this way will ‘consistently label innocent children as inherently dangerous gang members’ [page 33/34]
- The report notes that the criminal justice system has characterised Drill music as a form of realism, depicting what the artist has actually seen or done. The lyrics in Drill songs are frequently seen by the police as biographical information, and therefore admissible evidence in criminal proceedings [page 40]
- This has led to Drill artists, the majority of which are young Black men and children, being subject to injunctions that prohibit them from creating Drill. This has the effect of demonising a predominantly Black-led genre of music [page 40]
- The police have invested significant resource in researching Drill videos and there is a unit in the Metropolitan Police Service which focuses on identifying Drill music. These officers then provide ‘expert evidence’ in court cases. The report concludes that this amounts to no more than the prosecution calling itself to give evidence. The report recommends that in order to avoid misinterpretations of Drill music, joint experts should genuinely understand Drill and its cultural context. Any report on the content of Drill songs or videos should (where possible) be agreed by both the defence and the prosecution [Page 41]
- It also notes that the use of the creation of Drill music as evidence of bad character negates all the positive aspects this artistic act which in fact can show drive and determination. This suggests that the entire genre is inherently dangerous and criminal and recommends that evidence of producing Drill music should only be used as bad character evidence if it can be shown to be relevant to the specific crime [page 41]
This report does not shy away from clearly setting out that while the causes of BAME disproportionately in the youth justice system are broad and complex, at the root remains racial bias and prejudice.
The use of the creation and production of Drill music as evidence in criminal proceedings is a key example of the demonization of Black culture and some would say is a lazy attempt by the police to be seen to be presenting answers for why there has been a rise in violent crime among young people in London.
The report notes that preliminary research suggests that almost half of Defendants in trials involving Drill as evidence are teenagers at the time of sentencing. While other musical genres are seen as a positive creative outlet for many children and young people, the creation of Drill music, which is a predominantly Black-led genre of music, is being used as evidence that the artists are dangerous and criminal.
JUSTICE offers practical and logical recommendations to try and counteract the damage being done by the increase in use of Drill music evidence in criminal proceedings. For example, ensuring that evidence of producing Drill or appearing in Drill music videos is not used as bad character evidence unless it is strictly relevant to the specific crime presents a balanced solution which protects the rights of young people to creative expression.
Sadly, some police and CPS have been blinded by literalism and are unable to see Drill music as anything other than a dangerous means gangs use to incite violence. The moral panic around Drill music has been indulged by certain sections of the media and the increased use of Drill music in evidence in trials feeds into the narrative that the creation of this genre of music is intrinsically criminal. Using evidence of the creation and performance of Drill music to secure convictions is misguided, unjust and only leads to alienating Black boys and young men as it send the message that ‘their cultural activities will be policed and prosecuted.’
The absurdity of a unit in the Metropolitan police purporting to be able to provide ‘expert’ evidence on what Drill lyrics and videos mean by virtue of the fact they have viewed videos on YouTube should not be overlooked. In light of this, JUSTICE’s recommendation that only joint experts who genuinely understand Drill and its cultural context should be allowed to give evidence should also be uncontroversial.
It remains to be seen whether these important recommendations from JUSTICE will be taken on board. However, we would suggest that action needs to be taken quickly to “tackle the corrosive effect of portraying a genre of music as innately illegal, dangerous and problematic”.
Written by Maeve Keenan, Associate, Kingsley Napley LLP