A couple of months ago I was standing in Koko, a music venue in north-west London, watching drill rappers Skengdo and AM’s headline show. In it, they announced a minute’s silence “for the brothers who couldn’t make it”. It was powerful, because it forced everyone in the overwhelmingly teenage audience (yes, I felt old) to stop their mosh-pitting and Snapchatting and reflect upon the normalisation of violence and imprisonment that young men like them must overcome to become successful entertainers.
I first interviewed Skengdo and AM in November 2017. I found them to be articulate and driven to escape their increasingly gentrified yet impoverished pocket of Brixton, south London. But a lot has changed since then. Like other acts, such as Unknown T, Loski and LD, they have become domestic stars while the moral panic about drill music has crystallised into an unprecedented authoritarian clampdown.Last month the pair were given a suspended prison sentence for performing their song Attempted 1.0, after footage of their Koko show was uploaded to YouTube. They had breached the terms of their “gang injunction” which also restricts them from entering the SE11 postcode, or making various provocations in their lyrics.
I can’t say I’m surprised. The steepness of musical censorship’s slippery slope, and drill’s position upon it, became evident throughout 2018. In May, Commander Jim Stokley of the Met’s gang-crime unit posed that drill rappers could be treated like terrorists (I argued that it was more useful to regard them as child soldiers). Not long after, the controversial west London group 1011 were banned from making music without police permission.
But the case of Skengdo and AM — much like Sajid Javid’s introduction of knife crime prevention orders last week, which could lead to children as young as 12 being imprisoned for being suspected of carrying a knife — has taken us into unchartered civil territory. As a letter signed this week by human rights organisations, lawyers, academics and musicians argues, criminalising artists in this way is both unjust and ineffective. It is unjust because it denies the basic freedoms of those who are attempting to creatively, if distastefully, expose their experiences of subsistent life in the bleakest urban pockets of British society. And it will be ineffective at achieving any reduction in violence because it simply does nothing to address its root causes: childhood trauma, daily poverty, stretched youth services, exclusionary schools, intergenerational family breakdown, and so on.
At most, the step will send a message to budding rappers that pursuing drill music as a career or hobby is unacceptable. But this ignores the fact that the genre has itself spawned as a desperate attempt to be heard. Suppressing it without recognising the need to provide any alternative infrastructure of self-expression for vulnerable young people is more likely to further entrench the way that violence and its compounding psychological elements that are articulated so viscerally in drill lyrics spread like a disease among closed, ignored communities, until intercepted properly.
Instead of muzzling what drill is trying to tell us, we need to see it as a rich, organic resource with which impactful conversations between educators and the most anxious, angry young people can be mined. In my youth work I have seen the sort of trust-building that can take place when drill is discussed under critical supervision. Only once a suitable dialogue has been established can the music’s horrific content, and the warped morals of lyricists who fetishise knives, or are misogynistic, or brag about life in the trap house, be sustainably challenged. Demonising music in isolation of any other cushioning measures will push the darkest ideas explored in drill’s unforgiving verses further out of reach of those of us who are trying to make real change on the frontline.
What’s more, obsessing over drill’s hazy relationship with actual instances of violence – rather than seeing it as a circumstantial product of a fragmenting society whose adults hypocritically set a standard of going to war on social media themselves – usurps any capacity for other narratives to be told. What about the way it provides a source of therapy, as BBC 1Xtra DJ Kenny Allstar poses? What about how the genre, by virtue of its impressive technological dexterity, has, like grime before it, become a vehicle of social mobility for teenagers making careers out of music production, videography, digital marketing and artist management?
Finding solutions for youth violence, and the way social media too easily provides an unchecked platform to glamorise it, is certainly a tall task. But musical censorship will achieve nothing. As commentator and rapper George The Poet has said in his podcast, which grapples with this debate: “Telling your own story is the secret to survival.” So instead of locking up young people for telling their story – for trying to survive – we should enable them to tell a better one.