One of the scare stories of the Brexit debate has been chlorinated chicken, the kind of unpleasant American import that we might be forced to swallow once outside the auspices of the EU. However, over the last few years another toxic American import has been sliding into British cultural life, one which should have met with an outcry from Britain’s supposed ethnic community leaders but has not: Drill music.
Drill is a nihilistic sub-genre of Rap music which originated in Chicago. The vast majority of its exponents are young black men, and gang activity – particularly gun and knife violence – is the central theme of the lyrics and videos. The Met Police have issued warnings about Drill and its links to real gang related violence and killings in the UK. Several murders of gang members who have recorded Drill records have already taken place and British courts are now routinely banning known gang members from publishing Drill videos online.
Drill is not the cause of gang violence but rather has become a central part of the gang ecosystem, used to groom new members, threaten rivals and assert dominance over territory. It represents the fully-fledged arrival of American-style gangster rap culture on UK soil. Nobody can say they were not warned about what this culture brings with it: the deaths of gangster rappers Tupak Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace in the US, fuelled by gang rivalries, took place over 20 years ago.
Yet the response to Drill from the black community in the UK has been underwhelming. Black political leaders who have spent time and energy protesting, for example, the arrival of Donald Trump in the UK have been at best silent when it comes to the importing of US gangster rap culture. Indeed David Lammy, after the Windrush scandal broke earlier this year, tweeted a picture where he actually appeared to liken himself to the gangster heroin dealer Omar from US TV drama ‘The Wire’.
Concern about some of Trump’s followers and the re-emergence of extreme right-wing politics is legitimate, but gang culture presents a far more clear and present threat to young black lives. Why, then, is Drill not under greater pressure from prominent black leaders in the UK?
The answer seems to be that Drill – like US gangster rap before it – is being treated as just another iteration of legitimate black musical self-expression. Instead of looking at what has happened in America and resisting its import to the UK, black leaders (both political and cultural) appear to be waving it through purely on the basis that it might offer some of the artists involved a music career.
Some of the response to the recent explosion in gang violence has involved politicians pointing the finger at white middle class drug users for creating the demand. Very little has been said about the incentives that are increasingly being offered to Drill artists by the music industry and other commercial bodies. From brand sponsorships (including Puma’s now infamous pop-up ‘Trap House’) to paid radio and concert appearances, the UK Drill scene is being incentivised to develop, just as it was in the USA.
For example, over the last two years Drill artists have become a regular feature on BBC Radio station 1Xtra, where they are paid license fee money for performances and record plays. This year’s flagship ‘1Xtra Live’ concert featured Drill artists for the first time, including those with known convictions for heroin dealing. Presenters from the BBC regularly showcase Drill artists online, and a forthcoming album produced by an upcoming BBC DJ is comprised almost exclusively of Drill artists, including two groups whose names explicitly refer to known South London gangs.
Nobody can stop the young men involved from producing these records, but organisations like the BBC and prominent awards ceremonies like the MOBO and Brit Awards can and should remove all incentives for the production of Drill. No airtime, no awards and no brand sponsorships. Politicians and community leaders of all ethnicities – but especially those who purport to represent the interests of the black community- should give the music industry the political cover it needs to do this.
There is a precedent for this kind of soft banning of a musical style in the UK. In 1981, a gig by skinhead punk band The 4-Skins triggered the Southall riots. In the wake of that violence, the 4-Skins and other associated ‘Oi’ punk bands were upbraided by the national press and soft banned from radio, music shops and gig venues. Should this treatment be reserved only for white bands in sub-cultures that threaten ethnic minorities? Is there something about music associated with far more serious black-on-black violence that should single it out for different treatment?
We are not obliged to accept the import of American gangster rap culture to the UK. Helping a tiny handful of music artists to obtain paid work needs to be weighed against the human misery being created within the Drill ecosystem: a terrifying level of violence against women, heroin and crack cocaine dealing, gun and knife violence and murders.
Nobody should be incentivising young British black people to get involved with any of these things.
The author is a DJ and producer from South London. He writes about the impact of music industry trends on Britain’s minority communities. He is writing under a pseudonym.
If you want to get involved in the debate, All In Britain is co-organising a session at the Battle of Ideas called ‘Drill, crime and race: what is inciting violence on London’s streets?‘ on Saturday 14th October, 4pm at the Barbican Arts Centre. For more details and tickets, click here.