In October 2018, a rapper called Drillminister released a song so violent it made national headlines. With lyrics such as, “I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front”, “I will not rest until she’s chopped up in bags in the freezer” and “get on your knees, bitch”, the song was part of a genre of street music known as drill, which is popular among young black artists in London.
Months earlier, Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick had linked drill music to various murders and violent crime in the capital, and in May 2018 YouTube began deleting drill videos from its platform.
Yet Drillminister’s track “Political Drillin” remains up on the site, and has been viewed more than 300,000 times. It is a protest song, written using the words of British politicians. Those violent lyrics quoted above were actually comments made by Labour MP Jess Phillips (in 2015), Evening Standard editor and former chancellor George Osborne (in 2017), and shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis (in 2017), respectively.
“If politicians are saying that the words of drill music are negative then their words are negative as well,” Drillminister said, when we met at his south-east London studio, a large soundproofed room adorned with framed platinum records.
Drillminister, who grew up on a council estate with his mother and three younger brothers in Woolwich, south-east London, wore a sweatshirt with a red imprint of a British passport, under a big orange puffer jacket. His face – as always – was covered by his black “bally” (balaclava) and round gold glasses. He does not disclose his real name or tell anyone his age. All he said to me was that he is “old enough to vote, but under 30”.
The anonymity is deliberate – a way to suggest that people are too trusting of polished and suited politicians. “A lot of MPs have two faces: a public face and private face. I’ve got one, and it’s got a bally on it. It gives me the autonomy to say it how it is.”
Although Drillminister is an elusive character, he nevertheless appears as a regular pundit on urban issues, discussing youth violence and air pollution on programmes such as Good Morning Britain, Victoria Derbyshire, Channel 4 News and Newsnight.
It was during a debate about knife crime on Newsnight in March 2019 that Drillminister decided to run for the London mayoralty. He had appeared on the show with the Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, whom he describes as “the token black guy the Tory party banked on”.
“I’m more representative of the streets than him,” he told me, sinking down low in his leather mixing desk chair next to a huge bank of buttons and dials. “So I said, ‘Yo, I’m running [for mayor] too.’”
Ahead of the election on 7 May 2020, Drillminister has released a manifesto, which is pitched at low-income Londoners. Pledges include capped peak-time rail tickets for those earning less than £21,000 a year, new stations for poorly connected areas and top-up cards that allow homeless people to buy food, shelter and clothes.
“People in the middle [political centre] are ignored. They don’t serve a purpose for right-wing politics, which is corporate-driven, or left-wing politics, which is PC-driven – what does the little man care about who the hell’s going in the toilet?” he said, referring to trans rights rows.
“They’re never going to be at Claridge’s having tea with Mark Zuckerberg, and they’re never going to be with Greta Thunberg, going into the forest to save every animal and bird – so where do they sit? They’re just normal people and they work at PC World.”
Drillminister has Afro-Caribbean heritage; his great-grandfather was born in Saint Kitts, and died in the Second World War fighting for a Caribbean air crew in the RAF. “In Saint Kitts, there is a big monument with his name on it; it’s widely known there the sacrifice he made.”
His mother, who “critiques me quite a lot” on his TV appearances, gave him books to read aloud to her every night while he was in primary school.
“Everyone was reading Biff and Chip books; my mum was giving me novels by Stephen King; I was reading [the 1986 horror story] It at seven-years-old,” he recalled. “She was giving me Plato and philosophers and all these mad books I had to read, and I had to read it back to her every night. She’d be making me read Oscar Wilde and all this stuff, saying ‘this is how you’re going to form your brain and understand different people from different ethnicities’.”
His favourite book was by Sigmund Freud on behavioural patterns. He read it aged 11 and cannot recall the title, but describes the blue cover. “From this book, I understood people’s fears, and what I am, and how people were going to perceive me forever. That book shaped the way I look at the world.”
In school, he felt “a bit weird, because I knew stuff other kids didn’t”, and he was careful not to seem “bougie” or a “know-it-all”. At 19, he began working as a sound engineer and songwriting for drill artists, such as the rappers SL and Headie One, who have both had songs in the UK charts.
During this time, he experienced the authorities surveying and removing content. “The people I was working with, they started getting shut down,” he said. “A lot of the guys, this is how they pay their mortgages. Why would you not want this continued? It doesn’t make sense.
“If someone’s mum has been on a low income all her life, unable to buy her house off the council, living there for 20 years plus, and then the son starts making £100k a year through this new form of music, bringing in this wage, why would the police come to the house not to arrest him for stabbing someone but to arrest him because he’s out there making music?”
Drillminister soon became an artist himself; his manager worked on pop giant Drake’s 2016 number one hit “One Dance”. With songs titled “NI Backstop”, “No Deal Brexit” and “People’s Vote” in his back catalogue, Drillminister’s political passions were clear.
“London mayor has become a launch pad for political advancement for every single man who’s taken the role,” he said. “Boris Johnson just did legacy things – Boris island, Boris bikes, the guy would’ve had a Boris McDonald’s if he could. Now, Sadiq Khan is trying to be the first Asian prime minister, stoking fire with the most powerful man in the world [Donald Trump] so his name can be well known.
“We do that in urban music – it’s called ‘clout-chasing’. Khan is clout-chasing, doing Trump blimps, while people’s sons are dying on the road from knife crime.”
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down