'Jailed over a group chat': Use of drill music at UK trials sparks concerns of racism in justice system

Ademola Adedeji was sentenced to eight years in jail on conspiracy charges.

January 16, 2023, 7:32 PM

MANCHESTER -- Ademola Adedeji had a place secured to study law at a top university in England. As part of a charity initiative, he had authored a book about inspiring his local community in Moston, Manchester, made an address to parliament and was seen by family and friends as driven by a "passion for helping people."

But in July 2022, Ademola -- known by those close to him as Ade -- was sentenced to prison as part of a gang along with nine other young Black men. Prosecutors alleged that Ade belonged to a gang, named M40 after their local zip code, who had plotted a revenge attack after one of their members, Ade's friend Alexander John Soyoye, was stabbed to death in 2020.

But, according to his family and defense team, the gang was not a "gang" at all -- but instead a loose music collective creating songs as part of the young but increasingly popular genre of U.K. drill music. Ade, who was 17 at the time of Soyoye's death, was not even part of M40, they say, he merely liked listening to drill music.

Investigators said they found "hundreds of thousands of communications" proving that the group had "entered in to an agreement to kill or seriously injure a number of individuals."

According to Ade's lawyers, his involvement was to send a handful of messages in a Telegram chat, set up by Soyoye's friends, where he shared a postal code and a screengrab of a map of someone he believed to be a perpetrator. Ade acknowledged to his role in sending the text messages, describing it as a "moment of madness" as he processed the grief of losing a friend. The individual named by Ade was not hurt, his lawyers at the time said.

PHOTO: Ademola Adedeji was 19 when he was sentenced along with nine other Black youths as part of a criminal gang his defenders say did not exist.
Ademola Adedeji was 19 when he was sentenced along with nine other Black youths as part of a criminal gang his defenders say did not exist.
Greater Manchester Police

"The messages that he sent were he speculated about somebody who he had heard was involved in the killing, and he sent a post code around where that person might possibly be," Reece Williams, Ade's former mentor at a youth charity he was involved in, told ABC News. "No harm from which came. There was no attack on the individual that was named. No harm came to that individual whatsoever."

Police said other participants did go onto commit violent crimes, but the online chat formed the basis of the prosecutor's argument that this group of young Black men were all involved as a violent gang. Ade, now 19, was sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy to commit assault.

"Their plans, some of which had been executed and others which remained in planning, posed a serious threat of harm to their targets as well as a very real risk to members of the public," local police said in a statement following the sentencing. "This positive outcome should reassure members of the public and warn offenders that those involved in both the planning and execution of acts of violence will be prosecuted and brought to face justice, where they should expect to feel the full force of the system."

For three weeks of the trial last summer, jurors were presented with examples of drill music and its violent lyrics as evidence of their gang affiliation and violent intent, according to supporters present in the court. Analysts were brought into the courtroom to discuss the meaning of certain lyrics and jurors were played examples of drill music videos.

Originating in Chicago in the early 2010s, the subgenre of rap music has sparked controversy in the U.K. for a perceived celebration of gang life and violence.

In several situations, artists have rapped about real life murders, and, in the U.K., both the courts and police have exercised powers to censor a number of prominent drill artists on the grounds that they incite crime.

Eithne Quinn, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Manchester, who has served as an independent expert in legal cases involving rap, told ABC News the use of drill lyrics against defendants is "very, very frequent" at trial. Particularly when large groups of men are on trial together, the music "brings in stereotypes about criminality, about violence" into the courtroom, she said, often also conflating the young men on trial with those that appear in music videos.

"The music becomes the soundtrack for shoring up the idea of the gang, in the space often of hard evidence that should be needed when such serious charges are on, and people's lives are on the line," Quinn said.

"When rap video after rap video is played in court, the jurors do not know what to make of the rap music. It pervades the whole courtroom," she said. "It makes the jury frightened. It gives them a sense that there's a kind of public safety issue."

Quinn said rap was also often treated as "autobiography or a documentary or a diary entry," while also "just giving a sense of bad character, of propensity to violence."

While Ade admitted to listening to drill music, he denied being part of either a gang or the music collective. The trial was a "textbook" example of what can happen when rap music is used by prosecutors, Quinn said.

"The day I went to the court and I saw over 35 lawyers, barristers, solicitors on this case," Taiwo, Ade's mother, told ABC News. "And I look at where those boys were sitting. And then I knew there was trouble because they never had the chance to really know who the boys are. They already painted them as gang because they're Black, because they together, and they listen to drill music. So automatically they become a gang. They were never seen as kids, as children."

PHOTO: ABC News' Patrick Reevell spoke to Adedeji's mother, Taiwo, as the family plan another appeal in the case.
ABC News' Patrick Reevell spoke to Adedeji's mother, Taiwo, as the family plan another appeal in the case.
Kieran Tiernan / ABC News

Though Ade had been stopped and searched dozens of times by police officers, his mother said, he had no prior convictions and is still in prison as he weighs up his dreams of becoming a lawyer. He cooperated fully with the police, confessed to his involvement in the chat and hoped that the justice system would find him innocent of the charges. He was jailed, she said, because of the color of his skin.

According to Williams, prosecutors created and the jury accepted the image of a violent Ade, which contrasted with the reality he knew that Ade was a "compassionate" and inspiring member of the community who wanted to be a lawyer himself.

"I was surprised initially that they had been arrested and brought in on the charges based on such little evidence that they actually had," he told ABC News. "But I wasn't surprised in the verdicts at all, because I have always said, if you present ten young Black men as a gang. The ordinary layperson who does not understand how innocent life works and doesn't understand what it means to be a gang. They're just going to hear those words. They're going to have violence. The images of young men rapping violent lyrics and drill music [and they're] going to put two and two together."

The use of these prosecuting methods, Williams claims, was driven by a need to secure convictions and is ultimately underpinned by racism.

Last year, Ade's local Member of Parliament, Lucy Powell, wrote to the Minister of Justice to express her concerns for the case and appealed for direct intervention. In the letter, obtained by ABC News, she wrote about Ade's exemplary academic record, his future prospects, alleging that he and three of his peers were "being prosecuted based on messages sent while they were trying to navigate their grief." She has not, she said, received any acknowledgment of the letter.

"The evidential bar is just a lot lower [to prosecute gangs]," Powell said. "[Prosecutors] don't need to show that someone had any anything to do with the actual criminal act at question at all. You just have to show that there was an association … and you're just as culpable as the person who wielded the knife."

The use of drill music in trials has prompted criticism from advocates who say it disproportionately targets Black men, who are overrepresented in the justice system to begin with.

"Because of the connotations of [drill] music, the topics that the music reflects, that makes it easier, I think, to prosecute cases like this where the whole case is predicated on being able to show that all the men in the dock, if you like, are all part of the same criminal gang network," Powell said.

PHOTO: Ademola Adedeji had a place to study law at the University of Birmingham before he was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Ademola Adedeji had a place to study law at the University of Birmingham before he was sentenced to eight years in jail.
Courtesy of Adedeji Family

"We are aware of the complexities of prosecuting cases where there are allegations of gang involvement and prosecutors have clear legal guidance to inform their considerations," a spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service told ABC News. "Our prosecutors carefully assessed the evidence in this very complex case, considering each individual in respect of each charge."

"The jury heard all the evidence and made their decision on each charge and each defendant, properly directed by the judge, and we respect those verdicts," the statement added.

The Prosecution Service has launched an update of its guidance to prosecutors on the inclusion of drill music as evidence, with a public review due to produce findings this year. But some experts warned they were worried the changes would be superficial.

Quinn, who co-founded the "Prosecuting Rap" project, which has campaigned for changes to the music's use in court, said the U.K. should look at legislation currently being pursued in New York, where two Democrat senators have put forward a bill titled "Rap Music on Trial" that would set a higher bar for prosecutors using songs as evidence.

In November, an appeal against Ade's sentencing was denied, but now -- with a new legal team -- they are preparing a fresh appeal and hope to overturn the conviction, his mother said.

In the meantime, his family and friends continue to support him, after, they say, one community tragedy was compounded by another.

"His community misses him," Williams said. "That's one thing that I'd say. There's lots of young people that absolutely miss his absence, that absolutely feel his absence, that miss him, that counted on him as somebody that would offer them support."