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Earlier this year, Instagram took down a music video featuring a track called ‘Secrets Not Safe’ by British drill artist Chinx (OS). The takedown was in response to a request from the UK’s Metropolitan Police, who claimed that the track referred to gang violence in London, and that it could spark more of it.

How do we know this? Because the independent oversight board of Instagram’s parent company Meta outlined what happened in its latest ruling – a ruling that has overturned Instagram’s decision.

“Meta lacked sufficient evidence to conclude that the content contained a credible threat, and the Board’s own review did not uncover evidence to support such a finding,” ruled the board. “In the absence of such evidence, Meta should have given more weight to the content’s artistic nature.”

That latter sentence is key, and sets this story in the wider context of whether lyrics by Black artists are being scrutinised by authorities. The Protect Black Art campaign in the US, for example, has been campaigning over the use of lyrics in criminal trials.

There are strong cross-Atlantic parallels here. Artists and campaigners feel that young Black artists rapping about their past experiences and/or fictional tales are being unfairly targeted by the authorities for what should be considered artistic expression.

Those authorities, meanwhile, either see these lyrics as potential evidence of current criminality (this is the focus in the US, in several cases that Protect Black Art has highlighted) or as potentially inciting violent crimes (the emphasis in removal requests in the UK).

Takedown requests for drill music has been a hot topic in the UK since 2018, when YouTube removed around 30 music videos in response to requests from the Metropolitan Police – although at the time it was reported that the requests numbered between 50 and 60, so not all were acted on.

In November that year, Spotify and Apple Music were criticised by some politicians for carrying drill music on their services, although there was pushback too. Broadcaster Channel 4 commissioned a drill music video whose lyrics were drawn from politicians’ quotes about metaphorically ‘knifing’ unwanted leaders, highlighting potential hypocrisy.

Meta’s oversight board filed a freedom of information (FOI) request and found that “all of the 286 requests the Metropolitan Police made to social media companies and streaming services to review or remove musical content from June 2021 to May 2022 involved drill music”, with 255 of those requests resulting in content removals – even if only 21 were for Meta’s services.

The board’s ruling makes some recommendations for how Meta should change its responses to ‘state actor’ removal requests, including that it should “update its value of ‘Voice’ to reflect the importance of artistic expression”.

That mirrors Chinx (OS)’s views in a BBC News interview. “I can see why people think it’s very violent but I feel like it’s an expression,” he said. The Metropolitan Police has yet to comment.

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