A Manchester MP is to raise concerns with the justice secretary over the conviction of several young black men who were jailed after taking part in a group chat discussing revenge for their friend’s murder.
Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central and shadow culture secretary, said it was just the latest example of black youths in her constituency being unfairly drawn into a “gang” narrative because of the music they listen to and who they know.
She compared the case with another violent crime in Greater Manchester, which took place in the most affluent suburb and involved a wealthy white teenager who stabbed his friend to death.
In 2019 Joshua Molnar was cleared of the murder and manslaughter of 17-year-old Yousef Makki in Hale Barns, Trafford, after a jury accepted that he knifed him in the heart in self-defence.
Powell contrasted Molnar’s case with a trial in which 10 men aged 18 to 21 from Moston in north Manchester were jailed on Friday for between eight and 21 years for conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm (GBH) or murder.
A jury found they had plotted to avenge the murder of their friend Alexander John Soyoye, who was stabbed to death on 5 November 2020 in a street fight involving some of the defendants.
Supporters say these men were found “guilty by association”, some after taking part in a Telegram group chat one day shortly after Soyoye was murdered, weeks before any violence was carried out by some of the other defendants.
Those four 19-year-olds – Ademola Adedeji, Raymond Savi, Omolade Okoya and Azim Okunola – had no weapons, committed no violence and did not go on any “scoping missions” to seriously harm those responsible for Soyoye’s death. But they took part in the group chat with boys who did, and were jailed for eight years for conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm.
Powell said she was writing to the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, to raise concerns about the latest case, as well as to Andy Burnham, who as mayor of Greater Manchester is also the region’s police and crime commissioner.
Powell contrasted their convictions with the Makki case, “where two boys were at the scene when Makki was killed. They had very expensive barristers and a different demographic profile and went to private school, and the main offender [Molnar] was white and it was portrayed as a tragic accident. They were ‘just playing’ at being part of a gang. Now that may have been the case, but why can it not also be the case for young black men from north Manchester?”
Defence barristers in the Moston case complained that their clients were unfairly labelled as “gangsters” because they had watched drill music videos on their phones.
Molnar, during his trial, filmed himself in the court building making stabbing motions to the soundtrack of a drill track with the lyric “two flicks with my hand, let’s see who bleeds”.
The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the legal guidance for prosecutors on the way drill music is used in trials, amid concerns it can unfairly prejudice some cases.
Its definition of drill is “a type of hip-hop often featuring lyrics referring to drug dealing and street crime” but which can include “lyrics linked to gang violence and threats to kill, which, if relevant to a case, may form part of the evidence”.
Some of those imprisoned were aspiring drill rappers from a loose music collective known as M40 or simply 40, named after their postcode in Moston. Others had watched videos of M40 and other drill acts.
Aitch, a white rapper from Moston who has had two UK chart top 10 hits, sometimes associates himself with the M40 name, the jury heard.
Sentencing the 10 men at Preston crown court, the judge Mr Justice Goose ruled that M40 was also a criminal gang, of which the 10 defendants were either a “member or affiliate”.
The jury was played several M40 music videos featuring some of the defendants. One, No Hook, has had more than 180,000 views. It begins with a drone shot looking down on an Asda in Moston and shows large numbers of black youths with their faces covered, rapping and posturing outside a takeaway. The two main rappers in the video are Soyoye and Harry Oni, who was sentenced to 21 years for conspiracy to murder.
Other defendants had simply watched drill videos. Okoya had 3,019 videos on his phone, among them three M40 videos, including No Hook, watched once. His barrister, Adam Kane QC, sought to argue this did not mean he was a violent person.
“Those of a certain age will recognise what I mean when I observe that Eric Clapton didn’t really shoot the sheriff, any more than he shot the deputy,” said Kane.
“Watching [drill videos], or listening to [drill], doesn’t mean you intend to emulate the things spoken of in real life, any more than watching Scarface or Goodfellas or Casino or the Godfather parts 1, 2 or 3 makes you a mafioso.”
In 2017, 11 teenagers were jailed in connection with the murder of one youth in Moss Side in Powell’s constituency. A key piece of evidence presented by the prosecution to suggest the men were in a gang was a drill video of a track called AO (Active Only).
Three defendants had been in the AO video, in non-rapping, peripheral appearances. The jury was not told that the video had been organised by a youth worker and part-funded by Greater Manchester police.
Powell wrote a letter on behalf of her constituents that was given to the judge before Friday’s sentencing, in which she said: “The frequent use of gang narratives in [these] prosecutions relies heavily on racialised assumptions, loose associations and outdated or inaccurate stereotypes of inner-city neighbourhoods like Moston and Moss Side.”