It is happening all too-often. Pretty much every other day I am greeted with stories of another stabbing victim, another life damaged or destroyed by knife crime. These victims are often in their teenage years or early 20s, their futures cut short by violence. We could call it a worrying rise or we could call it an epidemic. Either way, 2018 has seen a tragic increase in knife attacks that appears to show little sign of slowing down.
At last month’s NRA convention in Dallas, Donald Trump made use of reports that a central London hospital was ‘like a war zone for horrible stabbing wounds’, claiming it’s ‘as bad as a military hospital’. This unhelpful exaggeration was intended to provide an ill-informed case against gun control in the US, as if suggesting stricter gun laws in the UK have caused these problems. This ridiculous assertion does not need to be given any more time. However, it is indicative of the misinformation and conjecture that leads the media to draw simplified and narrow explanations of the causes, hoping to find a specific target to demonize.
Musically, Drill flows between sparse, ethereal melodies that float along woozily, or is taken to a more urgent synth-laden track, underpinned by driving rhythms. Visually, the videos are becoming adventurous and expansive, taking the artists to new pastures around the world.
Enter: UK Drill. Recent months have seen headlines strewn across the British press, describing the musical style as ‘brutal rap that fuels gang murder’, providing a ‘violent soundtrack at the heart of London’s gangland’. The perceived danger of UK Drill even prompted the Metropolitan Police to coordinate the removal of over 30 music videos from Youtube, targeting them for their ability to ‘raise the risk of violence’. This act sees the Met using powers previously used to tackle terror suspects, clamping down on the ability for artists to use their online presence to ‘glamourize’ knife and gun crime. This reaction comes after growing pressure on the authorities to address the spike of knife crime in London, which saw a peak in April of six stabbings across the city in the space of 90 minutes. But how can music videos be to blame?
UK Drill has a huge fanbase, with artists racking up millions of views on Youtube, seemingly overtaking Grime as the current sound of the Capital. The music takes inspiration from Chicago’s drill scene, where the likes of Chief Keef and King Louie helped establish this darker, aggressive offshoot of Trap in the early 2010s. Emerging in the UK a few years later, the music developed around the Brixton area in South London amongst predominantly black communities. As with Chicago Drill, the music tackles with the harsh reality of inner-city life, often with themes of violence and crime taking centre stage. Yet these young artists have forged a distinct sound of their own that infuses the rapid-fire delivery of grime along with London’s idiosyncratic slang and patois, creating a musical subculture that is gaining wider recognition not just outside of the city, but outside of the UK as well.
…these young artists have forged a distinct sound of their own that infuses the rapid-fire delivery of grime along with London’s idiosyncratic slang and patois, creating a musical subculture that is gaining wider recognition not just outside of the city, but outside of the UK as well…
Youtube is the vehicle through which UK Drill’s popularity has been driven, using slickly-produced videos as the platform for their music. With tower blocks, dark streets and chicken shops as the backdrop, groups of youths donning black balaclavas deliver their raw, uncompromising tracks, rapping about their willingness to use guns and knives against their rivals, or ‘ops’. The imagery is confrontational and the explicitly violent lyrics are jarring, especially when you consider the age of some of these artists, with some of the biggest stars as young as 16. Gang rivalries form a common arc of the stories in these songs, with this boasting and posturing serving as a source of captivation amongst fans as musical popularity and talent becomes interwoven with the artist’s notoriety and respect on the streets.
Drawing the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred, as the subject matter may at once be derived from lived experience as much as it is exaggerated through group bravado. It is this perceived authenticity which is part of what drives the music’s appeal. The overt glamorization of violence forms part of the issue surrounding the genre, much like the moral panics attached to video games, gangsta rap and heavy metal. Yet in the case of Drill, the music and its videos have become part of a wider problem.
The perceived danger of UK Drill even prompted the Metropolitan Police to coordinate the removal of over 30 music videos from Youtube, targeting them for their ability to ‘raise the risk of violence’. This act sees the Met using powers previously used to tackle terror suspects…
The use of social media offers a platform for individual beefs or group rivalries to be amplified, broadcasting these disputes through channels that can reach a mass audience, frequently producing the spark that causes tensions to translate into real violence. Social media places trivial disagreements into the public eye, and with the desire to save face and maintain their ‘reputation’, this encourages people to go through with the act of violence. This is evident in many instances where social media has been implicated as a contributing factor in a significant number of attacks and murders.
It is a horrendous tragedy affecting predominantly young black men from working class communities, whose promising lives are being destroyed by insignificant disagreements. Action needs to be taken to address this issue, and the authorities need to be effectively working with the communities involved to educate and offer support to find alternative routes out of this cycle. But what impact will be had through targeting Drill and clamping down on the artists expressing themselves through this style of music?It would be grossly remiss of me to suggest that Drill music does not have a part to play in the rising toll of knife crime and the devastation this is causing. I cannot claim its innocence as simply music that reflects the experience of the artists involved. Yet the discussion of the music that we see in the national press fails to consider the other side. Here we have an internet-savvy generation of musicians, video producers and entrepreneurs, who are creating an incredibly successful subculture that has millions of fans. These artists are coming out of challenging backgrounds, surrounded by crime and poverty from an early age. But through music, they are trying to raise themselves beyond this experience and find success on their own terms, with true DIY spirit.
Take 67, one of the biggest names in Drill. They have created a brand for themselves, a collective of artists who are pushing the genre to new directions and offering young artists the space to grow. With tracks recorded alongside established names like Giggs under their belt, they are now household names, gaining festival performances in the UK and abroad. They have, in many respects, set the standard for Drill artists to follow. The group has encountered many setbacks, with promoters often forced to cancel their shows due to police pressure. Yet they continue to show resilience in overcoming these obstacles and continue to rise in popularity.
There are guys like Abra Cadabra, who perhaps has always stood outside of the Drill genre, but with tracks like Robbery Remix, he has produced a driving anthem that is bolstered by the appearance of Krept & Konan, artists who, along with Giggs, have been a significant influence on the Drill sound. With ‘Hood Politics‘, he tackles the scourge of violence damaging London communities, and with ‘Sherry Coco’, he offers a crossover track that incorporates the burgeoning sound of Afrobeats, showcasing his diverse ability as an artist.
With Skengdo and AM, they are also moving the genre into new directions by weaving in a tapestry of current music trends coming out of London into their productions, alongside their inventive wordplay that is beginning to move away from themes of violence and gang rivalry.
Its not just the MCs who are worthy of attention, as there is real talent on display from the beat makers and video producers in the scene. Musically, Drill flows between sparse, ethereal melodies that float along woozily, or is taken to a more urgent synth-laden track, underpinned by driving rhythms. Visually, the videos are becoming adventurous and expansive, taking the artists to new pastures around the world.
Drill music is at a crossroads. With an abundance of negative press and the efforts of the authorities to stop performances and ban music videos, Drill could be forced to become more marginalized. Alternatively, it may continue to develop and rise in popularity, finding ways to adapt in this hostile environment.
There is a dark side to Drill. But by demonizing the music and the artists involved, we risk losing sight of the root causes of the rise in knife and gun crime and failing to address them. The causes are complex and multi-faceted. Decades of growing disenfranchisement has caused a disconnect between the authorities and black, working-class communities, with both sides reluctant to work together to solve these issues. The immense tragedy of Grenfell Tower last year casts a shadow over London, highlighting the disparities in wealth in the capital. It is a story that is indicative of the systemic neglect and marginalization that has been caused by a decade of austerity, leaving communities with a lack of youth services and slim opportunities.An important thing to note is that reports of rising knife crime are not just coming from the nation’s large urban metropolises; they are coming from smaller towns and cities across the country. As an example, over the last fortnight alone there have been three stabbings in Ipswich, a coastal town in Suffolk situated around 80 miles from London. I have recently moved to a neighboring county, Norfolk, which is a predominantly rural county with much of the land used for agriculture. Yet recent reports have indicated that incidents of knife crime have risen by more than 200% between 2014 and 2017. This is a phenomenon that is affecting the nation as a whole, suggesting the underlying causes are prevalent across the country, not just in the communities from which Drill emerged.
Recent years have seen a changing drug market, with inner city gangs making use of ‘county lines’ drugs supply networks in counties across the UK, utilizing violence and exploitation in order to establish their presence in these new markets. Youngsters in London are becoming involved with drug dealing at increasingly younger ages, through those higher up the pecking order using the promise of money and belonging to gain new recruits. Teenagers are being arrested carrying huge knives and machetes, and one has to wonder where they are getting them from.
Budget cuts has meant that over 20,000 police officers have been taken off the streets, resulting in a significant decrease in a policing presence across the country, perhaps lessening the perceived threat of arrest from criminal acts. Either way, the police force is stretched to the max and is struggling to cope with the challenges that face them today.
By making Drill the focus of attention, precious resources are being channeled into attempts to control and ban the music, diverting them from other important avenues. There is also an element of racial bias, in their targeting of a predominantly black musical movement. This has been highlighted by Amnesty International’s recent condemnation of the Metropolitan Police’s use of the ‘Gangs Matrix’. The database, which compiles data on individuals suspected of being involved with violent crime, was found to breach human rights through its discrimination and prejudice towards black communities. Despite only making up 13% of the population of London, 78% of those on the list are black. This is completely disproportionate to the percentage of violent youth crime committed by black people in London, which stands at 27% – and conversely, black youth are the primary victims of those very crimes.
Amnesty International’s report throws a light upon the discriminatory practices that have surrounded policies of the Metropolitan Police for decades. Before Drill, it was Garage and Grime artists that were targeted unfairly for their perceived connection with criminality, with shows often getting stopped by the police. There is of course a troubling connection between Drill music and youth violence, and if through removing certain music videos that directly taunt other individuals causes needless violence to be avoided, it should be pursued. However, I can’t help worry that by taking the opportunity to take music away from these youngsters, we may find that greater disenfranchisement and anger towards the authorities will foster, only perpetuating the disconnect from society that has helped contribute to the rise in knife crime in these communities.
Music is a powerful tool of collective expression that helps unite communities. The fact that some of these youngsters are rapping about stabbing and shooting each other is a tragic indictment of the societal conditions present amongst working-class black communities in London. Yet we should tread very carefully to not stifle creativity and self-expression amongst an already marginalized group of people.
As it stands, Drill artists are still very much targets of censorship. Members of 1011, a Drill group who have racked up millions of plays on their music videos, were recently served a court order which bans them from performing or producing Drill music without obtaining police permission prior. The five youngsters were caught in November 2017 with various knives and machetes, supposedly on their way to carry out a revenge attack on another gang, receiving this criminal behavior order in response. This is an unprecedented move, which perhaps signals a worrying trend.
The chief executive of the campaign group Index on Censorship, Jodie Ginsberg, suggests that “This isn’t going to address the issues that lead to the creation of this kind of music, nor should we be creating a precedent in which certain forms of art which include violent images or ideas are banned. We need to tackle actual violence, not ideas and opinions.”
I can’t help but share these misgivings.