Recent court rulings require officers to keep watch over artists’ rap lyrics, which prosecutors say celebrate gangs and violent crimes
LONDON — The British rapper Digga D can’t explain how he lost the use of an eye while serving a prison sentence last year: not because he doesn’t want to, but because talking about what happened might get him sent back to jail.
The police here scrutinize everything the 20-year-old says in public, whether in an interview, or on a track.
In 2018, Digga D was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiracy to commit violent disorder, after a court case in which music videos by the masked rapper were presented as evidence. In sentencing Digga D, whose real name is Rhys Herbert, the judge also issued an order banning him from releasing tracks that describe gang-related violence.
He must notify the police within 24 hours of releasing new music, and provide them with the lyrics. If a court finds that his words incite violence, he can be sent back to prison; parole conditions also limit what he can say publicly about his past.
So when asked, in a Zoom interview, about how he lost the sight in his eye, Digga D could only shrug.
Digga D is a leading voice in Britain’s drill scene, a subgenre of hip-hop featuring eerie piano melodies layered over droning bass lines, and lyrics portraying life in some of the country’s most deprived neighborhoods. Arising in Chicago, drill started to take on a new life in London in the mid-2000s, fusing with the city’s grime and garage sounds and helping to drive offshoot scenes in places as disparate as Brooklyn and Brisbane, Australia.
Like Digga D, some of Britain’s most popular drill artists have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and their lyrics reflect their experiences of gang life, criminal justice and time behind bars.
Sentencing orders, like the one banning Digga D from rapping about violence, have also been handed to other drill artists. Introduced in 2014 and known as criminal behavior orders, the measures give judges broad powers to regulate a convicted criminal’s life, such as by banning them from certain neighborhoods or by preventing them from meeting former associates. Judges have also used the orders to control some musicians’ lyrics, arguing that when rappers brag about attacks on rivals, it stokes street tensions.
In January 2019, for example, a London judge sentenced the musicians Skengdo and AM to nine months in prison for breaking a criminal behavior order by performing a song with lyrics including a list of gang members who had been stabbed.
Rebecca Byng, a spokeswoman for the London police’s violent crime unit, said in an email that criminal behavior orders had “a wide-ranging scope, and go beyond addressing lyrics which incite violence,” adding that they were an important tool to “steer young people away from violence.”
“We are not targeting music artists, but addressing violent offenders,” she added.
Yet the London police has recently stepped up its efforts to remove drill music videos from YouTube.
In 2020, the video platform removed 319 music videos at the force’s urging, according to a police report obtained through a Freedom of Information request. That is more than twice the number it took down in 2019. In total, YouTube has removed more than 500 music videos over the past three years, the report says.
Keir Monteith, a criminal defense attorney based in London, is advising a government-funded research project studying how rap lyrics are used as evidence in court. He said that in some ways, the authorities’ treatment of drill recalled the heyday of punk in the 1970s, when the police shut down concerts and the BBC banned a hit single by the Sex Pistols.