Rap lyrics in criminal trials: What does the case law tell us?

Organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Crime, Justice and Society Seminar Series

Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials: What does the case law tell us? Abenaa Owusu-Bempah, Assistant Professor of Law, London School of Economics & Political Science

About the seminar

It has become increasingly common for prosecutors to rely on rap lyrics and videos as evidence of guilt in criminal trials, despite growing concern about the discriminatory nature of this practice. This presentation will explore the current approach to the admissibility and use of rap music in English criminal trials by presenting findings from an analysis of over 30 reported appeal cases. A number of themes emerge from the case law in respect of the nature of the charges and the profile of defendants, including age, ethnicity and location. The case law also shows that rap music is commonly treated as ‘bad character evidence’ to establish gang affiliation and, in turn, liability for an offence. As well as challenging the categorisation of rap music as ‘bad character evidence’, the presentation critiques the way in which questions of relevance and prejudicial effect have been addressed by the courts.

In particular, when making admissibility decisions, the courts appear to give little, if any, consideration to the cultural context, artistic conventions or social influences within the rap music genre. These factors affect both the probative value of the evidence and the fairness of its admission. It will be argued that courts should be slow to admit rap music as evidence of guilt, and should not enable prosecutors to rely on stereotypical narratives and racist imagery to construct case theories.

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