I’ve spent the last two weeks religiously plugged into AJ Tracey’s debut album, and my god, was it worth the wait. The versatility in his music shows his level of craftsmanship, and the tracks are brimming with drill, garage, grime, dancehall and even influence from country music. The first of those genres that I mentioned is drill, cultivated in Chicago’s South Side and growing in popularity like a wildfire in the UK music scene.
Brixton drill group 410 were recently sentenced to nine months in prison for breaking the terms of a gang injunction issued to them back in the summer of 2018. AM and Skengdo are the better known members of the group, and have been punished for performing the track ‘Attempted 1.0′ at a gig in December. It is, essentially, a criminal conviction for performing a song. The contentious issue at hand seems to be the content of the song which, like much of drill music, depicts themes of violence as well as the usual tropes found in hip hop music in general. There has been a strong narrative regarding the swathe of crime that seems to have engulfed London. A total of almost 15,000 knife crimes were reported in the capital last year, an increase of 15% in the last twelve months and the highest it’s been in a decade. There is clearly an issue that the police and politicians need to address, but it seems that drill music has become the most recent scapegoat in what causes such a high level of criminal activity and moral depravity.
There is, of course, some truth on the surface. Drill music does contain strong themes of violence, but this is not just simply bravado. The music provides an insight into the experiences of many young people who have grown up in broken, urban settings that many people are blissfully unaware of. The rapid gentrification of inner city areas has lead to many people on the fringes feeling increasingly more frustrated and forgotten, but the UK music scene has flourished by allowing these experiences to be heard, and drill has burst through into mainstream music after many years of bubbling underground. Anyone who’s been bumping Russ’ Gun Lean that has cemented towards the top of the charts or has seen 67’s meteoric rise in the last few years cannot deny that drill is breaking into the culture and isn’t going anywhere fast. The genre is raw, brazen and painfully honest, which appeals to me and many other followers of the sound.
However, I can’t sit here and suggest that there isn’t a thin line between speaking your experience and glamourising violence. There was uproar in 2017 when M-Trap, as part of a four person group, stabbed a 15 year old boy to death, and there were links made at the time between his violent conduct and his lyrics being spurious with stabbing and skeng references. He was not the first and certainly not the only drill artist to have been involved in violent crime, but the question is whether indulging in this genre of music is symptomatic of destructive behaviour within violent offenders.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, publicly stated that UK drill music was one of the main reasons for the surge in knife crime in London. Putting aside the fact that there is no substantial evidence supporting her claim, she went on to insinuate that the fact that such videos glamourise violence warrants their removal from the internet. As a result, YouTube has currently taken down 30 drill music videos in an attempt to satiate this belief that such videos on a public platform trigger violent acts in everyday viewers.
Pure disbelief. This is the head of the Metropolitan Police suggesting that glamorising violence should be deemed a criminal offence. We can go round in circles around the morality of glorifying such conduct and the social impact drill videos have on impressionable youngsters, but this is an astounding and dangerous leap. Glamorising violence should never be a criminal offence. If it was, everything from James Bond to Rambo, Call of Duty to Fortnite would be illegal. There have been moral panics throughout history over content that pushes the envelope, from jazz to punk to gangster rap. But the causal link has never lead to this level of censorship, with 410 being the first British artists to have received prison sentences for performing a song.
The absurdity of this is not to be confused with laws preventing citizens to incite violence, which is illegal in the UK. But 410 have not been charged with that, because they have not incited any violence. What the police have done is corruptly redefine what it means to legally incite violence against someone, and this has meant that the members of 410 are guilty of inciting violence despite having failed to incite a specific violent act. It’s convenient for the police to point the blame at drill, because it plays perfectly into the narrative that violence in the streets are caused by thuggish youths in hoods with nothing else better to do than to terrorise the general public. It is the failure in the system that breeds frustrated individuals who may go on to commit crimes, not the children from impoverished backgrounds that the system is not supporting, and for Cressida Dick to point at the citizens and to ignore the root of the problem is the truly criminal aspect of all this.
This wide expansion of police powers to now convict individuals in this manner is the most blatant example of censorship in an era where people are being restricted from speaking how they feel. But this is darker. It’s not stopping controversial speakers having a platform on university campuses or placing trigger warnings in novels. This is an elitist excuse to point the blame at young people who are talking about violence that they know all too well, but who played no part in steeping themselves in it. It’s a distraction from the many other factors that cause disenfranchised young people to turn to violent crime, and the police’s preferred solution is to sentence people talking about the reality they live in, rather than striving to change that reality for the better.
If you deny drill artists to be open about the lives that they lead, it is ridiculous to believe that the problem of violence in the capital will simply disappear. It’s better for it to be out in the open for us all to see. We should not want future youngsters relying on music videos in order for us to have an honest conversation about tackling the capital’s crime rate.