What is musicriminology? Linking crime and music

19 August 2022
From punk to death metal to drill music, we explore resistance, protest, and crime in music
Professor Murray Lee, of Sydney Institute of Criminology, explains the criminological study of music and how musicians could open our minds about resistance and protest songs and how we think about crime in society.

What is musicriminology?

Broadly, musicriminology is simply the criminological study of music. This includes the use of criminological frameworks to explore music that uses crime themes, musicians who have been crimimalised, whose music or performance has some relationship to deviance, harm or the processes of criminal justice. It is, in short, a term to describe a disparate body of work around the criminology of music.

More specifically however, the notion of a musicriminology as developed in my scholarly work also seeks to outline a set of methodologies for this type of enquiry that accounts for the cultural context and inter-subjective nature of music, musicians, and audiences, as well as the aesthetic, atmospheric, sonic, and overall sensorial experiences of music. It does this drawing on recently emerging criminological fields such as sensory and sonic criminology, as well as the more developed area of cultural criminology. It is also by necessity interdisciplinary, drawing on fields as diverse as musicology, cultural history, cultural studies, post-colonial studies, and of course law.

Overpoliced: rap, drill and hip-hop

In recent times there have been developments around policing and criminal justice that has seen music, rap drill music in particular, criminalised and vilified both through legal processes and in the media and public discourse. Lyrics have been used in criminal trials as evidence for real crimes, and serious crime prevention orders have been used to stop artists performing, and accusations of inciting violence have also been used to invoke consorting laws and even have artists change their lyrics. Liquor licensing laws have also been used to shut down music performance.

This follows a similar history in regards to so-called gangsta rap in the US in particular. Such use of the criminal justice system to target artists has had a disproportionate effect on artists of colour. However, this policing of music is not confined to the Anglicised world, with rappers being persecuted for challenging authority in Spain, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere. Similarly, death metal and other genres have been subject to suspicion for their association with hate crime and fascism, raising complex questions about the role of music to fringe political movements and the limits of freedom of expression.

Why musicriminology matters

Music has a long history of confronting the state and social inequality in terms of protest songs, of raising awareness of violence against women, and of bringing attention to the plight of marginalised groups. Music is used in prisons as therapy and rehabilitation, and even plays a role in post release programs. Johnny Cash famously toured prisons, and Nick Cave carved out a good part of his career singing ‘murder ballads’.

Going back further in history forms of music and performance have been banned by the church, censored by the state, and subject to police violence and brutality (see the punk scene in 1970s Brisbane). Yet, for all these links between crime and music, criminology has a tendency towards the quantitative, and presenting itself as a more traditional social science. As such it has lacked the analytical tools for analysing these crime and music links.

A musicriminology seeks then to define a field, and to expand the disciplinary boundaries of criminology into hitherto unexplored interdisciplinary territory which can energise the discipline. Working with musicians and seeking to understand the context of their resistance, protest, or deviance can open our minds not just to the role of crime themes in musical forms, but to how music might influence the way we think about crime in society.

While currently police might be pursuing Pasifika drill group ONEFOUR for inciting violence by suggesting that ‘retaliation is a must’, remember Johnny Cash once ‘shot a man, just to watch him die’, and Tom Jones stabbed Delilah ‘with the knife in [his] hand and she laughed no more’ in a premeditated domestic violence incident.

Murray Lee is a Professor in Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School and a member of the Sydney Institute of Criminology.

Professor Murray Lee

Professor Murray Lee

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