Drill, crime and race: what is inciting violence on London’s streets?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Pit TheatreIdentity wars: race and society

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In February this year, headlines branded London the ‘murder capital’ as its homicide rate overtook New York for the first time in modern history. One of the many explanations offered has been the rise of a new underground genre of hip-hop called drill. Originating in Chicago, London’s drill scene has developed its own distinct cultural tropes and style. Drill music videos often feature groups of masked men, all in black, brandishing weapons. The New York Times dubbed drill the ‘soundtrack of London’s murders’.

The Metropolitan Police claim that these videos, when posted on YouTube, directly cause violence when rappers insult and provoke their rivals or ‘opps’. The Met have ordered YouTube to take down dozens of videos and plan to prosecute rappers who stoke gang feuds with their lyrics under anti-terror laws. The rap group 1011 were issued an unprecedented court order, banning them from mentioning death or injury in their lyrics and forcing them to inform the police within 24 hours of releasing new music videos. Under upcoming measures, lyrics which ‘incite violence’ will not even need to be linked to a specific attack to secure a conviction.

Critics of the police’s approach say they are dangerously blurring the lines between violent-themed lyrics and real-life violence, between music and criminality. The drill question is perhaps a quandary as old as modern entertainment itself: does music reflect your environment or shape it? Drill rapper DJ Bempah argues, ‘if that’s what you see in your environment, as an artist, that’s what you portray in your lyrics’. Some see the clampdown on drill as an unwarranted attack on young black men in London, who already face what many see as police harassment.

Furthermore, history is full of examples of moral panics over youth subcultures and music genres, from mods and rockers in the 1960s and 1970s, to the parental advisory panic over gangsta rap in the 1990s, to grime in the 2000s.

But is drill different? By focusing on drill as artistic expression, might we miss its more intimate relationship to a new nihilism in London street culture? Stanley Groupal, father of 15-year-old Jermaine, who was stabbed by the drill artist M Trap-O, claims his son would ‘still be here’ were it not for ‘demonic’ drill. Some drill rappers have incriminated themselves through their lyrics when they have described real, not imagined, murders in detail in their songs. The feuds between rappers in some cases really do escalate into violence. Before Siddique Kamara – a 23-year-old rapper known as Incognito and a member of drill group Moscow17 – was stabbed to death in August, he conceded: ‘You see with the crime that’s happening right now, music does influence it. You’ve got to put your hands up and say drill music does influence it.’ However, he added: ‘But knife crime and gun crime has been going on way before drill music, so if you want to talk about 10 years, 20 years, people were still getting cheffed up [attacked with knives].’

Meanwhile, YouTube compilations denounce rappers who don’t act on their threats as ‘wet’ to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Then there’s the literal nature of drill’s violent lyrics, with some artists deliberately eschewing metaphor, and the nihilism of the violent threats that are delivered over a slow beat, with nonchalant talk of stabbings (‘touching’) and acid attacks (‘splashing’).

Are court orders that limit what artists can say anything other than an attack on artistic expression? Should drill artists in particular take greater responsibility for the consequences of their work? Is drill ‘art’ at all or simply intimidation set to a beat? Does focusing on music distract from more complex social factors responsible for London’s rise in violent crime or do the violent, nihilistic tones of drill point to something more disturbing? Is the targeting of drill just another form of racism? How can we tackle the vicious gang war on London’s streets?