Drill music is “not a crime” but music videos will be used in court to prove suspects charged with gang-related offences know each other if they deny association, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said.
Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said the rap videos can also form “admissible evidence for a jury to consider” if it sheds light on the “modus operandi of an attack”.
Drill is a subgenre of US hip hop that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s; a UK version emerged in Brixton, south London in 2012.
Characterised by dark, provocative and sometimes violent lyrics over trap-style beats, drill rappers have been known to speak to lived experiences and aspirant hedonistic lifestyles.
The genre is increasingly being cited in UK court cases; last year the BBC analysed 67 trials from 2005 onwards where UK drill and road rap was used in evidence.
The broadcaster found most cases were in the two preceding years, many featured allegations of murder and the majority of defendants in those cases were young black men and boys.
Mr Hill, who as a barrister spent more than 30 years prosecuting and defending gang-related crimes, explained how prosecutors often enlist experts with knowledge of “street language” to help juries understand what the evidence is believed to refer to.
Speaking at the launch of CPS West Midlands’ new unit dedicated to tackling “exceptionally dangerous” and often “very young” people charged with gang-related violence, he said: “Drill music, by its nature, is supposed to shock, but it is not a crime and you have to put proper weight on that.
“What police officers, if anything, are [telling the court] is, ‘I’ve listened to it many times over, I can tell you what is being said; I can make a suggestion to what drug is being referred to’.”
But a senior academic has expressed “serious concerns” about police experts who present evidence which has a “significant impact and influence” on a jury’s verdict.
Dr Mohammed Rahman, a criminologist at Birmingham City University whose research area includes serious and organised crime in the West Midlands, told i: “If you look at the creativity behind drill in some cases you will find a particular incident, be it a description of violence or otherwise, is open to interpretation.
“A case can be made for a particular piece of music that contributed towards mapping and understanding where a crime took place. But there are serious concerns about deciphering lyrics, be it drill or otherwise, by so-called experts who have worked on a few cases.”
He continued: “Drill music has been around for 10 years. Have they been working on it since it emerged? What credentials do they have? How are they made aware of what the lyrics represent? How do they define that? It has more consequences than we can imagine.”
The CPS Serious Violence, Organised Crime and Exploitation Unit (SVOCE) was formed last July and handles prosecutions across four police force areas: Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands.
Its remit also includes cases brought by the British Transport Police, which “predominantly” deals with county lines – a term used to describe criminals who exploit children to deliver Class A drugs around the UK via the railway network.
Since its inception, SVOCE has prosecuted 110 defendants and secured 92 convictions; Mr Hill said the number of cases referred to the unit remains “consistently high” with gang-related murders, drug dealing, modern slavery, trafficking and county lines drug dealing.
He added: “This unit is dealing with exceptionally dangerous individuals [and] a lot of them are very young. It’s not going too far to say the prosecutors are appalled by the exceptionally young age of some of the people who are being presented through criminal investigation.”
Prosecutors said the unit considered drill lyrics in five cases last year and it was used as evidence in three trials.
Music streaming platforms and social networking sites such as TikTok have boosted drill’s popularity among Gen Z audiences. Rappers Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ track, ‘Body’, became the UK’s first drill No 1 single in May last year.