The Wolfe Tones’ Celtic Symphony and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton: Separated at birth?

Donald Clarke: Rap lyrics used as evidence against hundreds in UK courts. It’s part of cultural divide campaigners want to end

“Rap, your honour. Spelled R-A-P. A genre of urban popular music that involves the delivery of spoken lyrics over an electronic beat.”

It is half a century since hip hop germinated in the Bronx. It is just over 40 years since the music went properly mainstream. Grandmaster Flash, whose single The Message kicked open the doors, has somehow reached the age of 65. Early rap is to 2023 as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were to 1983. Yet judges still appear to be treating the form as some fresh, inexplicable phenomenon.

Last week it emerged that a body of venerable figures, including Baroness Shami Chakrabarti and the Irish DJ Annie Mac, had joined a campaign to alter how rap lyrics are used as evidence in UK courts. An open letter from Art Not Evidence argues that such a legal strategy “risks miscarriages of justice, perpetuates harmful racist stereotypes and contributes to a racially discriminatory criminal justice system”. Can this really be a huge issue? Surely song lyrics come up only rarely in criminal trials.

Not that rarely. The Guardian quotes a report from the University of Manchester that found “at least 240 people in the UK have had rap music used against them as criminal evidence in court in the last three years”. The subgenre UK drill, which emerged in south London during the early 2010s, has proved of particular interest to m’learned friends. Digga D, alumnus of the group CGM, has been prohibited, under a criminal behaviour order, from using “certain names, locations and themes in his lyrics”.

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The barrister Keir Monteith, among the signatories of the Art Not Evidence letter, recalls that he nearly fell off his chair when the prosecution introduced a client’s rap tracks as evidence. “Rap is music, it’s lyrics, it’s freedom of speech,” he said in that Guardian story. “It’s art and not evidence. In a murder case, we should be focusing on forensics, eyewitnesses, on CCTV.”

There has been no need to draft Bills requesting that lyrics from murder ballads be used sparingly in the trial of country-and-western musicians

Nobody would deny rap has its share of violent imagery. Two generations of fans, many from privileged white backgrounds, have driven about their cities yelling the lyrics to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. “Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off,” and so forth. Nor can it be denied that rappers often draw on their own life stories. But the songs remain works of fiction. There has been no need to draft Bills requesting that lyrics from murder ballads be used sparingly in the trial of country-and-western musicians. “I reject the suggestion my client actually shot a man in Reno just to see him die,” Johnny Cash’s lawyer was never forced to plead (so far as I know).

Never mind music. Do we think James Ellroy guilty of the kaleidoscope of crimes visited in his imaginatively lurid novels? If it pleases the court, I will take this moment to make the statutory reference to casual cannibalism in at least one of William Shakespeare’s plays. Baroness Chakrabarti, barrister and human-rights activist, draws a more pertinent comparison. “It’s like people making and listening to rebel songs to automatically be assumed members of the IRA,” she said, discussing the potential misuse of rap lyrics.

Lord save us from another dissection of The Wolfe Tones’ Celtic Symphony. One may raise eyebrows at audiences bellowing “Up the ’Ra!”, but, whatever about the potential insensitivities, only a nut would suggest all those bellowers were members of the Provisional IRA. This would be only a tad more foolish than assuming that, because The Clancy Brothers loved performing The Old Orange Flute, the band were paid up members of a Tyrone lodge.

The music is seen as a dispatch from another civilisation. Nuances apparently beyond understanding, the lyrics are read with a deadening literalness

There are clear links between the more bellicose rebel songs and gangsta rap, not least the transgressive thrill some audiences get from joining in with bloodthirsty choruses. It is amusing to note that both Straight Outta Compton and Celtic Symphony (yes, I know it’s not really a rebel song) emerged first in 1988. Younger fans have only the faintest connection with the era of composition. Please don’t put them in jail.

None of which frivolity is to deny the serious issue. The misunderstanding of hip-hop culture by white-dominated establishments speaks to a cultural divide that, for all the mainstream success of black music, has never entirely gone away. It feels like centuries since Puff Daddy (as he then was) helped the music towards MOR respectability. R&B derivatives now provide the most unavoidable tunes in public spaces.

But the ruling orders still regard those variations emerging independently from urban locales as a threat to “respectable society”. The allowances made for country and western – or opera, for that matter – don’t apply. The music is seen as a dispatch from another civilisation. Nuances apparently beyond understanding, the lyrics are read with a deadening literalness. I think this is what they call othering.