This website explores how rap music is being used as evidence in the criminal justice system and how this feeds the stigmatisation and over-criminalisation of Black and working-class young men and boys. It also explores how to challenge its use.
A growing number of researchers, lawyers, musicians, families, activists, commentators, civil liberties groups, youth workers and fans are voicing concern about the way rap is being interpreted and used by police and prosecutors.
This website is a product of an Arts & Humanities Research Council project Prosecuting Rap: Criminal Justice and UK Black Youth Expressive Culture at The University of Manchester. It combines material from this project and related networks with other key resources to serve as a portal for all those who want to understand and contest the use of rap in legal proceedings.
The site focuses primarily on what’s happening in England and Wales. But it also offers some comparative context — particularly from the US where rap evidence is widely used in court cases and where there has been concerted push back against what US scholars call ‘rap on trial’.
Rap—spoken-word verse over instrumentation—is the musical component of hip-hop culture that was first developed by Black and working-class youth in 1970s New York. Rap became a foremost youth-cultural form internationally.
UK rappers like Stormzy, Unknown-T, Little Simz, M1llionz and Dave have forged highly successful careers, while many thousands of young people compose and record rap verse to express themselves, perform to friends, share on digital platforms and make some income.
Putting rap on trial
Themes of violence and crime are staples in the pop-culture of many young men and boys (from gaming to action films) and they are staples in a number of rap subgenres, including controversial UK Drill.
When conducting criminal investigations, police trawl the digital lives of young people looking for rap lyrics and videos that might appear incriminating. Prosecutors then seek to get this material admitted to trial. Meanwhile, police monitor rap music and force the removal of many videos from digital platforms and the cancellation of live performances.
These practices have often gone uncontested in a legal system that is skewed towards police and prosecution.
Overwhelmingly, the young people whose creativity is criminalised and censored are Black.
Prosecuting Rap project findings
This project finds rap to be a very unreliable and prejudicial form of criminal evidence. Yet, it is routinely used to help prosecutors sweep groups of young people into very serious charges. These ‘multihanded’ cases tend to rely on racist stereotypes and ‘gang’ tropes, reproduced in media coverage, and often at the expense of hard evidence. The Prosecuting Rap network also finds police censorship of rap to be unaccountable and unduly oppressive.
Exploring the courtroom life of rap opens a gateway into institutionally racist processes in the criminal justice system. It reveals the targeting of young Black people via their expressive culture. More broadly, the project contextualises the prosecuting rap phenomenon in relation to social policy failures that exacerbate inequality, incarceration, poverty and marginalisation in contemporary Britain and that shape both rap’s creativity and the state’s response to it.
The Prosecuting Rap website was created by Eithne Quinn and Franklyn Addo with original artwork by @DirtyCipher. Input and ideas came from Dr Abenaa Owusu-Bempah (LSE) and Dr Lambros Fatsis (Brighton), Dr Anthony Gunter (Open University), Prof Charis Kubrin (Irvine), Prof Erik Nielson (Richmond) and Dr Joy White (Bedfordshire).
The AHRC project Prosecuting Rap: Criminal Justice and UK Black Youth Expressive Culture (2020-21) was led by Professor Eithne Quinn with research associates Latoya Reisner MA and Dr Kamila Rymajdo at The University of Manchester and the external advisor was Keir Monteith QC at Garden Court Chambers, London.
The AHRC project was built on an earlier Humanities Strategic Investment Fund project (2015-17) on ‘Prosecuting Rap’ at The University of Manchester. Prosecuting Rap is an associated project of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).