cfp: Prosecuting and Policing Rap (Popular Music 40.4)

Special issue of Popular Music 40.4 (2021)

Prosecuting and Policing Rap

Contributions are invited to a special issue of Popular Music on the complex interface between rap music (taken in its broadest sense to include mainstream rap, gangsta rap, activist rap, drill, grime, etc.) and criminal justice systems around the world.

Rap music is an international youth-cultural powerhouse and, while its spread has been celebrated, it has also been attended by mounting criminalisation. This special issue asks researchers to explore the policing and prosecuting of rap and how this has been framed in media reporting. It also considers what might make rap susceptible to such state criminalisation and how rappers, communities, civil liberties groups, defence lawyers, and scholars have come to challenge ‘prosecuting rap’.

The use of rap music in criminal and civil proceedings has emerged as a well-documented issue of public concern in the US—dubbed ‘Rap on Trial’ (Nielson and Dennis; Nielson and Kubrin; Dennis; Dunbar, Kubrin and Scurich). However, outside the US, it is much less understood and there is a pressing need for more scrutiny and critique. This special issue is particularly interested in work that addresses case studies and trends in the global South; in Britain and other non-US parts of the global North; and in comparative work on the US in relation to other countries.

We welcome contributions from a range of disciplines (law, popular music, media studies, sociology, criminology, cultural studies, linguistics, socio-psychology, etc.). We believe this topic—situated at the intersection of law and culture—opens significant opportunities for ambitious interdisciplinary work. We’re keen on approaches that open outwards from concrete discourses, poetics, policies and practices to expose broader social trends, institutional processes, and critical concepts that lay bare state violence (racism; economic injustice; overpolicing, etc.) and that offer radical critiques. We are also keen on applied work, and contributions that engage with musicians, communities, activists, and criminal justice professionals.

Rap music is policed by the state in a range of national contexts (Johnson and Cloonan; Gunter; Tanovich). In the UK, for instance, rappers have had injunctions imposed on their music (Bramwell and Butterworth; Fatsis; Ilan; Street; White), while rap is increasingly used as evidence in criminal trials, replayed in courtrooms to confirm stereotypes about the violent and criminal propensities of young black men (Pinkney and Robinson-Edwards). Rap music can be used to sweep groups of youngsters into a single serious-violence charge through gang narratives and controversial ‘joint enterprise’ law (Williams and Clarke). How might rap feed into racist and class-based disparities in criminal-justice monitoring, censoring, data-gathering, policing, charging, convicting, sentencing, and media-framing in different countries? How is digital musical culture being deployed? How does the criminalisation of rap music constrain human capabilities and rights (Hesmondhalgh; Amnesty)? How have rap musicians critiqued rap-on-trial and ‘policing the planet’ (Camp and Heatherton)? By contrast, how have rappers played up to the market’s and the state’s criminalising lens (Gilroy; Quinn)? What is the role of the music industry in these processes?

These questions about institutional racism in criminal justice and the weaponisation of black youth culture have been injected with urgency by the international antiracism protests that have swept 2020.

Contributions should actively position themselves in relation to what’s already been said in the small but growing literature to generate new insights and approaches.

Topics to be addressed may include: 

  • the use of rap music and black youth culture in criminal proceedings in various national contexts
  • state regulation of rap recording, circulation and performance
  • rap evidence and gang narratives in joint-enterprise and conspiracy cases
  • informal policing (behaviour orders, public space protection orders, risk assessment forms, etc.)
  • police databases, rap and the surveillance state
  • rap and racism (institutional, cultural, overt) in criminal justice systems
  • digital musical culture and rap evidence
  • prosecuting rap as constraint on human capabilities/rights
  • rap and laws of evidence
  • the news-media framing of rap in criminal proceedings
  • rap as anti-carceral ‘defunding’ culture
  • community, musician and inter-generational responses to prosecuting rap
  • youth, rap and criminal justice
  • geographies of prosecuting rap and comparative perspectives
  • prosecuting rap, capitalism and the cultural industries
  • rap distinctions (genre labels; amateur v professional) and racial bias in the courtroom
  • challenging ‘prosecuting rap’

Call for Abstracts

Please send Abstracts (300 words max) + bio (150 words max) to the three co-editors of the special issue by 1 October 2020 (commissioning of articles scheduled for October 2020, with completed commissioned articles by 1 July 2021):

Dr Eithne Quinn, University of Manchester

Dr Joy White, University of Bedfordshire

Prof John Street, University of East Anglia


Amnesty International, ‘Trapped in the Gangs Matrix’, 2018,

Richard Bramwell and James Butterworth, ‘Beyond the street: the institutional life of rap’, Popular Music (forthcoming)

Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton, eds, Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (New York: Verso, 2016)

Andrea Dennis, ‘Poetic (In)Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life and Criminal Evidence’, Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts 31.1 (2007)

Adam Dunbar, Charis Kubrin and Nicholas Scurich, ‘The Threatening Nature of ‘Rap’ Music,’ Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 22.3 (2016), 280-292

Lambros Fatsis, ‘Policing the beats: The criminalisation of UK Drill and grime music by the London Metropolitan Police’, Sociological Review (2019)

Paul Gilroy, ‘We Got to Get Over Before We Go Under … Fragments for a History of Black Vernacular Neoliberalism’, New Formations 80-81 (2013), 23-38

Anthony Gunter, Race, Gangs and Youth Violence: Policy, Prevention and Policing (Bristol: Policy Press, 2017)

David Hesmondhalgh, Why Music Matters (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)

Jonathan Ilan, ‘Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why Criminalizing Drill Music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive’, British Journal of Criminology (2020)

Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan, Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009)

Charis Kubrin and Erik Nielson, ‘Rap on Trial,’ Race and Justice 4.3 (July 2014), 185-211

Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis, Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America (New York: New Press, 2019)

Craig Pinkney and Shona Robinson-Edwards, ‘Gangs, Music and the Mediatisation of Crime: Expressions, Violations and Validations’, Safer Communities (April 2018)

Eithne Quinn, Nuthin’ But a G Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005)

John Street, “From Gigs to Giggs: Politics, Law, and Live Music,” Social Semiotics 22.5 (2012), 575-85

David Tanovich, ‘R v. Campbell: Rethinking the Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Cases’, 24 Criminal Reports 7 (2016), 27-43

Joy White, ‘Making Music Videos is not a Criminal Activity – no matter what genre’, Conversation (2018)

Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke, ‘Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism’, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (2016)