Why banning rappers from using certain words won't work

Rico Racks has been banned from rapping “booj”, but that doesn’t make heroin non-existent in his life, or in the lives of his listeners.

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On Sunday evening it was reported that London drill rapper Rico Racks had been jailed for three years for drug offences. Racks, whose real name is Ervine Kimpalu, had pled guilty to supplying class-A drugs and possessing criminal property in the form of cash.

So far this isn’t the most bizarre of news stories – until you read that, in addition to his prison sentence, Racks has been issued with a Criminal Behaviour Order than bans him from rapping certain words relating to drug culture. These include: “bandoe” (an abandoned house used for drug dealing and taking), “trapping” (dealing), “booj” (heroin) and “whipping” (driving, a term used regularly in rap music in references unrelated to drug culture). CBOs can also be used to impose curfews, to prohibit associating with certain people and even to proscribe "the wearing of hooded clothing".

Racks makes drill music, a brand of rap that has been criticised for violent lyrical content. Originating in the South Side of Chicago in the early 2010s, drill rose to prominence in London from 2012, its nihilism more realistically reflecting the violence and grittiness of inner-city life than the unattainable luxuries that characterise much of contemporary hip-hop. 

The idea is that by banning certain words, the court will prevent Racks from glamorising drug dealing. However, it's hard to imagine that - had the law been in place at the time - the Beatles would have been banned from singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which glamorises the use of hallucinogenic drugs, or Bob Dylan from sharing his poetic incantation of injecting heroin in “From a Buick 6”: “Well, when the pipeline gets broken and I’m lost on the river bridge / I’m cracked up on the highway and on the water's edge / She comes down the thruway ready to sew me up with thread.” 

To believe that simply banning individual words is the answer is a misunderstanding of the complexities of drug culture, and language itself. Language – and in particular slang – exists as a response to particular circumstances, and when those circumstances change, language develops.

Racks has been banned from rapping “booj”, but that doesn’t make heroin non-existent in his life, or in the lives of his listeners. What’s stopping him coming up with a variation on the word that holds the exact same meaning, and once he’s using it, for fellow drill artists to follow suit? Language responds to reality, not the other way round: it is bizarre to believe that placing bans on individual words could somehow eliminate the existence of the physical object or action being described. All it does is encourage people to come up with another way to explain themselves.

Even more odd is the fact that Racks has been banned from using particular words, but not from rapping about drugs altogether. It gives a strange power to these few, specially forbidden words, as if it is these combinations of letters, more than any others, which could incite illegal activity in listeners. By focusing on such a choice group of words – in a lexicon replete with slang terms concerning drug culture and violence – also seems to suggest that the language itself is more powerful than the ideas or acts behind it. 

On the face of it, the obvious detachment between the police and drill music seems to demonstrate the divide between the state and the marginalised, the old and the young – and, often, the white and the black. In usual circumstances, most police officers would probably have trouble deciphering the true meaning of drill lyrics. Earlier this month a “rap translator” was used by police to prove that the 19-year-old rapper and gang leader Valenti – real name Roland Douherty – threatened to shoot his rivals in his song “Bro Code”, breaching an existing court order which bans him from “featuring in any audio or video online that is threatening, abusive, insulting, incites violence, promotes criminal activity, shows weapons or makes reference to gang affiliations.” These artists are so clever in their coding, the ruling suggests, that the police can’t do their job on their own – they have to bring in specialist experts in order to penetrate the sounds to find their meaning.

But this misunderstanding is dangerous – and it's hard to imagine similar penalties being put on genres of music with predominantly white artists and fan bases. In December 2018, when rappers Skengdo and AM breached an injunction by playing their song “Attempted 1.0” at a concert in London, they were sentenced to nine months in prison. “This is the first time in British legal history that a prison sentence has been issued for performing a song,” reported Dan Hancox in the Guardian

Instead of hiring “rap translators” to sift through lyrics, police should be focusing on the circumstances of drug-related offences and the communities they are from, working on the best preventative and rehabilitative measures to minimise drug use and its devastating effects.

Imposing meaningless limitations on an artist’s lyrical dictionary is unlikely to help, and it may be counterproductive. Language is important, always, and these artists know that – why else would they write at all? – but chiselling away at a few choice words doesn’t change the circumstances that cause someone to write a song.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.