Treating drill rappers like terrorists is a colossal mistake

Blaming music for youth violence is neither just nor helpful. Policing it with terrorism legislation is madness.

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Earlier this year, the British media discovered drill music: a dark, aggressive strain of underground London rap that thrives from being consumed and shared on social media. It sparked a moral panic that continues to this day; alarmed by drill’s skyrocketing popularity amongst teenagers, politicians and senior police have blamed the music and its videos for rising youth violence. Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick called for social media channels to remove drill videos, and YouTube took down 30 of the 50-60 such videos that Scotland Yard highlighted for removal.

On the one hand, this reaction is another episode in the perennial demonisation of provocative music. Punk rock in the 1970s, American hip-hop in the 1980s, and grime in London in the early-2000s were all received with attempts at censorship before they were absorbed into mainstream culture.

What’s more, waves of violence have ebbed-and-flowed for decades on the shores of London’s civic life. As tragic as it is, young people have been stabbing and shooting each other long before drill or the common availability of smartphones. In this regard, it is disingenuous to hold the music responsible for a problem that predates its conception.

On the other hand, there is legitimate concern about drill’s uniquely nihilistic content and digital form. Its lyricism is doused in references to guns, knives and drug-dealing, and its videos usually portray groups of young men wearing masks or balaclavas. Its availability is like no other musical genre ever, disseminated continuously across social media platforms like YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. In some cases, such as the tragic killings of Jermaine Goupall or Rhyiem Barton, territorial rivalries between drill groups, sustained by lyrical provocation, spill out recklessly onto the roads.

Drill thus presents a legitimate challenge technologically, as well as sociologically. The chicken and egg debate about whether it is more of a reflection or reinforcer of ongoing violence in the capital is one that does need to be had.

But to zoom out for a second, surely the fact that a musical genre has taken centre-stage in this debate is highly problematic? Drill is now an all-pervading folk devil, whose topic has usurped people’s attention away from any nuanced discussion about root causes of, or preventative measures for, societal violence. We are doing more harm than good by obsessing over this serious yet surface-level issue and responding with solutions that sweep the deeper, harder truths under the carpet.

The grip of panic is pulling us further down the slippery slope of futile censorship. Commander Jim Stokley, who oversees the Met’s gang-crime unit, recently announced that police officers could be given increased powers to pursue individuals (ie drill rappers) who they believe are provoking violence via social media in the same way as terroristsHe said that in tackling online threats, existing legislation used for terrorism may be employed – legislation for which, crucially, there does not need to be a proven link between the incitement of violence and its realisation. In other words, with minimal justification, police will be able investigate anything labelled “drill.”

This is wildly unjust. I personally know multiple prominent drill rappers and producers, and the majority have turned to music to communicate their extreme lives but more importantly to leave the negative trappings of those lives behind. There will be individual cases in which the genuine criminality of those who also happen to be drill artists will warrant some level of direct action (the videos from 1011, a group from Ladbroke Grove, were removed last week, if controversially, for this very reason). But to non-specifically target the entire genre, with such a poor understanding about its significance for young people, sets a weak precedent.

The Terrorism Act 2000 defines an attempted threat of terrorism to either influence government, intimidate the public, or advance political, religious, racial or ideological aims. Whilst it is far from desirable that threats are made in drill at all, especially whilst sent towards specific “opps” or enemies, drill rappers seek none of these ends. As is best shown by its cryptic lyrical colloquialisms, its content is intended to mean very little outside of artists’ closed, claustrophobic worlds.

For someone new to drill videos, it might be tempting to view them as attempts at fearmongering, but this is deceptively far from the truth. Most artists who wear balaclavas, for example, do so to hide their identities, not only from police – balaclava-wearing has increased with public knowledge that videos are being used for legal intelligence – but from teachers, parents and other members of their communities. They are mostly self-conscious, vulnerable young people with few, if any, options other than music for progressing in society.

In my youth work, I have discussed drill with young people in schools, community centres and prisons in London. Most of the extreme lyrical references to guns, knives, drugs, trap-houses, misogyny and anger, whilst unsavoury, simply narrate the predominate reality for a generation – often fatherless, traumatised by violence, excluded from school, unaided by squeezed youth services, caught in a retributive criminal justice system – who have turned to music in the absence of other routes.

In a practical sense, too, the use of terrorism laws will be ineffective. It is the greatest sign yet that people in power would rather dismiss than engage with teenagers, artists, youth workers or relevant music industry-professionals on this issue (like the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime and Youth Violence Commission, chaired by south Labour MPs Vicky Foxcroft and Sarah Jones, respectively, have impressively done).

The current, patronising approach of the British media and political establishment epitomises the very reason drill music has found such resonance in impoverished pockets of London (it was first appropriated from Chicago). In post-Thatcherite austerity Britain, in which people seem more eager to blame individual agency than understand societal pressures, poor young people feel more ignored and angry than ever before. Drill music tells them that their version of reality is real, worth narrating and being taken seriously. Amongst the panic, most people do not realise that the majority of artists, producers, videographers and managers – entire teams of hard-working people – are striving to achieve social mobility. Labelling them terrorists will do more to isolate and further disenfranchise those involved than prevent vague potential harms attached to the drill subculture.

Without the accompaniment of real engagement with the most struggling communities, these alarmist, draconian measures will only further suppress drill’s attempt to speak out. It will pop up elsewhere, or adapt into something darker, if that is even possible.

Why is drill so organically popular amongst young people? What might it tell us about the sort of society this Conservative government is engineering for future generations? Even more than grime was in its own formative years, it is a roar for help; a brutal exposure of life for urban youth who have been left in the concrete shadows. Instead of patronising artists, let’s listen to what they are trying to tell us, and then help them tell a more positive story.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth-worker and writer based in south London.