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The challenges of lyrical content in youth music work


What do you do when a young person writes challenging lyrics? And what are the risks involved in them doing so?

That was the discussion of a recent online learning session hosted by the National Youth Agency in partnership with Youth Music.

“Lyric writing was that place to be completely authentic or hide as much or show as much as I wanted to. It was that safety net to explore these things.” Rightkeysonly, Youth Music Advisor.

In recent research, Youth Music found that 73% of 16-24 year olds said listening to, reading, or writing lyrics enables them to process difficult feelings and emotions. Lyric writing is an essential tool on any youth music project – but it doesn’t come without challenges.

The session set out to examine how workers and organisations could best support young people to express themselves in an authentic and safe manner. Touching on points such as artistic expression, the benefits of using lyrics as a therapeutic outlet, and the importance of youth voice within that process.


Expert speakers

Mikel Medley from Gloucester-based charity The Music Works shared some of the approaches they have developed, and the impact this has had on young people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Will Prichard from Art Not Evidence introduced their campaign to ensure that lyrics and music videos aren’t used in criminal cases where they bear no connection to the crimes alleged.


Challenging Lyrical Content at The Music Works

Based in Gloucester, The Music Works implements youth voice throughout everything they offer, ensuring that young people get to choose not just how they interact with their services, but also how those services are run.

Underpinning all of their work is a strong safeguarding culture, and protocols that are established from the start of a young person’s engagement. This includes written agreements that clearly state there will be positive challenge around discriminatory language, glorified violence, use of names and anything that might incite conflict.

These boundaries are established from the outset. That means it doesn’t come as a surprise to young people when a conversation about language or lyrics is instigated by the staff team.

Staff are trained so they are confident to positively challenge young people. It’s not about saying “no, you can’t dop that”, but about having an open conversation about the negative impact that could arise from the names, incidents or glamorisations that may have been used. 

Having a youth-led culture helps young people to respect both the charity and its staff. They value the space and the quality of the environment which helps build trust and an openness to dialogue. Equally important for this is having a team of music leaders with authenticity and similar backgrounds to the young people. And remembering that’s it not just the staff who can support dialogue. Part of the youth led approach is about championing and platforming positive role models, who are influential amongst their peers.

Hear more about the lyrical journey of three young musicians through this specially created video podcast.


Art Not Evidence

Will from Art Not Evidence rounded off the presentations with a deeper into their campaign – and why it’s so needed. He highlighted that within the past three years, over 70 criminal cases involving more than 240 people have used lyrics, music videos and audio recordings as evidence in court. This only happens in rap music (as opposed to other music genres), and disproportionately affects black men. Often, this content is specifically classed as ‘bad character evidence’, which sets out to show the defendant as having a disposition towards the crime(s) they’re on trial for. Another type of ‘bad character evidence’ might be a previous conviction. Now, some song lyrics someone has written on an iPhone note can be used in the same category.

This practice is often problematic, as any context of the lyrics are often stripped away and left to the judge and jury to infer context, or lyrics can be misrepresented by police and others presenting the case.

There may be bona fide cases where someone has written about a crime that they, or someone else, has committed. In which case the music may well be vital evidence. However, the due diligence process is not high enough. Often, content is used as evidence but is completely un-related to the crime.

Art Not Evidence campaigns for new legislation to raise the bar on creative and artistic expression being used in criminal proceedings. They have written an open letter (which anyone can sign). They also called on youth workers and organisations to challenge the status quo and to ensure that young people’s right to freedom of expression is protected and championed.


Group discussions

The group were then invited to discuss their own experiences in breakout rooms. Looking at some of the challenges they’ve faced whilst working with young people expressing themselves lyrically, and how to best support them, the conversations were profound and a great learning experience for many. Some of the points that came up included:

Creating a safe space and a judgement free zone is crucial. But so too are safeguarding and setting appropriate boundaries.

Many young people will say things in lyrics that they’d never share in conversation. So lyrics are a great window into understanding what that person has been through or experiencing.

An encouragement for music leaders to decode slang, and guide young people to find other ways to express certain points.

The need for more discussion and resources on this topic.


What next?

Youth Music will create a more detailed resource for organisations and practitioners, launching in summer 2024. Sign up to the Youth Music Network Newsletter to be kept up-to-date.