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Introducing… The Movement Working to Keep Rap Out of UK Courts: Art Not Evidence

With a jaded history of prosecuting Black artists on the shaky foundations of lyrics and music videos used as evidence, the judicial system is in need of a reality check. Enter, Art Not Evidence. Elsa Monteith explains…

Headed up by a broad coalition of youth workers, lawyers, academics, journalists, artists, musicians, and music industry professionals, Art Not Evidence are holding the courts, prosecution, and police to account, bringing the bench face to face with their prejudiced assimilation of rap lyrics and music videos with assumed criminal gang behaviour. The history is as deep-rooted as it is contemporary, with legal firsts in 2019 sparking fresh debate about the nefarious question; is it art, or evidence?

Before the heat of drill, there was the ‘threat’ of grime and the ring of garage – the rich legacy of Black music continues to be seen as a menace or mark of misbehaviour by those wielding the hammer of what is often loosely described as justice. The suppression and censorship of Black music stretches back a century, a long and arduous history of creative expression fighting the good fight against the powers that be, and, sadly, so it continues.

Things came to a head in 2019, as drill rappers Skengdo and AM made legal history as the first artists to secure a prison sentence for performing their track at their homecoming London gig. The Met claimed that in performing the track, ‘Attempted 1.0’, Skengdo and AM “incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members”, despite neither rappers ever being convicted of a violent crime. The order marked a chilling shift in the way the courts, and media, lazily associate lyrics with intent, forgetting the heady context of racism, and the associated impact of judicial bias. 

Just a few months before in 2018 and drill phenomenon Digga D was served a criminal behaviour order (CBO) restricting what he could mention in his lyrics, a landmark case also banning him from performing his track ‘Next Up?’ to this very day, and requiring him to submit lyrics to the police within 24 hours of releasing new tracks. The order was widely criticised, with the Index on Censorship suggesting that this was an “impingement” on Digga’s illustrious creativity, appearing in a documentary aptly named “Defending Digga D” alongside his lawyer, Cecilia Goodwin.

Historically, our white counterparts fail to face the same scrutiny as Black rappers on road. There are countless examples of violent lyrics and imagery found in other genres like country, metal, and opera which are routinely normalised, overlooked, excused, and rationalised as solely performative and fictional, whilst drill lyrics are often perceived to be literal, autobiographical confessions all too often resulting in convictions. This double standard hasn’t gone unnoticed, with new campaign Art Not Evidence championing the artistry of rap and importance of untempered creative expression free of judicial comment or consequence.

With the weight of racism in mind, Art Not Evidence have drafted legislation to accelerate a meaningful and enduring change in legal processes, calling for artistic expression to be inadmissible in court, and only put before a jury if it passes stringent tests to ensure it’s legitimately relevant. With the backing of over 100 supporters pre-launch (including UD’s Chantelle Fiddy), the legislation is to be tabled by Nadia Whittome MP in the next parliamentary session, offering a hopeful gesture towards a future of rap profiled as poetry, and not used as a tool in prosecution.

What can you do to help grow the movement? Sign the open letter to the Secretary of State for Justice calling for the police and prosecutors to stop relying on rap music in trials, follow Art Not Evidence on social media, and share this article with your friends and local MP to help keep rap out of the courts.

Words: Elsa Monteith, a Brighton based writer and broadcaster working in and around the arts and on the radio waves. Subscribe to Elsa’s Discontented newsletter.

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