Bing. You have one new WhatsApp message — “What you up to?” asks one of my friends, “Nothing. Watching Drill videos”, I reply.
Drill eh? Isn’t that the music that literally kills you? I’ve heard it literally comes out of the headphones and stabs you as you listen to it.”
The joke lands well. I find it funny mostly because it plays right in to all the preconceived notions I already have about this Drill debate. As far as I’m concerned, the war on Drill music is just another in a long line of moralistic, oversimplified, sensationalised, outrage campaigns designed to sell papers to an increasingly disengaged audience and avoid the real problems we face.
Surprisingly though, this little exchange does stick with me over the next few days. Mostly because I’m surprised the guy texting me has ever heard of drill music and to me that indicates exactly how far this narrative has gone.
Ask any Telegraph-reading middle Englander to name one Drill track and I can almost guarantee they wouldn’t be able to do it. Yet I bet they could give you rhyme and verse about why it’s evil.
I’ve grown to expect that over the years. What I didn’t expect was to see exactly the same stuff being parroted in places like The Guardian — the same publication that generally gives glowing reviews to likes of Stormzy, Kano and J-Hus.
Moral outrage around music, especially black music, is nothing new. Way back in the 1920’s jazz was considered the devil’s music. Rock and roll was said to promote fornication and drug taking, and the gangster rap of the early 90’s was considered so obscene and offensive that it sparked actual protests in the streets.
NWA were literally put on an FBI watch list, and the President of the USA described Eminem as “the most dangerous thing to happen to our children since polio”.
I guess it’s understandable that my main reaction to this drill controversy has been “Yeah, yeah. Been there, done that”.
I tried to dig a bit deeper into this topic. What I ended up with was a better understanding of some of the key differences between Drill and other controversial music genres that have gone before it.
Drill music is without doubt a violent, antagonistic genre of music, with songs designed to embarrass and goad a person’s enemies.
That is nothing new. Diss tracks are as old as time. I bet Mozart was using piano concertos to diss other composers in his day. What is different is the use of social media and the accessibility of technology.
Once upon a time, if you wanted anyone to hear your music you would probably need a record deal, access to a studio, air time and the approval of MTV. Once your career had got to this stage, the chances are you were probably living in a gated community and had a security guard on your payroll.
These days anyone can record a track and a video in their bedroom, upload it onto YouTube, and have a million people watch it.
There is no protection for the people involved in the Drill scene, and the line between art and life is blurrier than ever. If you start acting like a hard man on social media, you’re going to need to deal with the consequences of that in the real world.
Can Drill music exacerbate and act as a catalyst for violence? Yes, without doubt. But let me be really clear – Drill music is not the reason violent conflicts exist.
Before Drill was even banging on the streets of Chicago, kids in London were beefing over postcodes.
Every time the question of immoral music rears its ugly head, artists make the same argument – “our music doesn’t create reality, it reflects it”. Or “We rap about what we know”. Inner city communities have long been plagued by violent crime.
Young people stabbing and shooting each other is no joke. It shouldn’t be taken lightly or discussed as if it’s an easy phenomenon to understand. If you really want to tackle serious youth violence, you need to deal with the underline causes and ask the hard questions.
Why do young people feel they need to turn to the roads? How have they become so alienated? What is society not providing them? Why do young people feel so unsafe that are carrying weapons? What drives a person to take another person’s life? Those are the sorts of discussions we should be having.
Singling out, blaming, censoring and banning a genre of music diverts us away from those real questions and the possibility of finding a solution.
It also does something more sinister than that. It drives people further towards the roads by cutting them off from a legitimate source of income.
It’s not a secret that young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have a real problem finding meaningful employment. This is one of the material causes of crime. How does it possibly make sense to limit people’s employment opportunities in a bid to reduce crime?
The Drill debate fits into a wider one currently being had about increasingly racialised, draconian policing. Sharing Drill videos online is now being used as a justification for putting people with no record of violence onto the highly controversial UK Gang Matrix.
Once on this Matrix, completely innocent people and their family members can be subjected collective punishment measures such as the loss of benefits, eviction from social housing and the loss of education and work placements. I don’t need to spell out how incredibly absurd and worrying this is.
Behaving badly on social media and enjoying aggressive music is not synonymous with criminality. If it were, I would be London’s most notorious gangster.
We also can not forget that sitting directly behind this whole debate, is another debate about of freedom of expression.
The UK police have been hitting headlines recently for ordering the removal of Drill videos from YouTube and hitting artists with criminal behaviour orders that can prevent them from associating with certain people, entering certain areas, wearing hoods, using social media and using unregistered mobile phones.
Even more frightening is the fact they are banning some Drill artists from producing any sort of music without the express consent of the police. These are not insignificant measures. I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the police and home office telling people what art they are allowed to produce or consume.
All throughout history the societies that have censored art have been, well… the bad guys. I’m talking Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and North Korea.
We are not even close to those levels yet. Nevertheless, censorship is very dodgy ground. Yes, we should be having huge discussions in our own communities about the impact Drill has on us and also what impact all art and culture has on us.
We should be constantly striving to hold each other to higher standards. But that is not the same as cheerleading state censorship.
Outside of actual hate speech, we have to defend people’s right to freedom of expression (even if we find what they say distasteful) because it is one of the most fundamental human rights we have.