Drill, a subgenre of hip-hop that became popular in Chicago in the early 2010s, later taking off in the estates of South London in 2012, has been receiving a growing amount of attention from politicians and the press in recent months. Often lyrically violent, guns, knives, and drugs are ubiquitous themes in drill. Direct links have been made between its lyrical content and the rising rates of knife and gun crime in Britain, leading some public figures to call for the banning of the genre. Cressida Dick (Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Service) has been quoted as calling for a ban on drill videos that “glamorise violence, serious violence, murder and stabbings”.
But is drill music really to blame for the rise in knife and gun crime? And is banning it the answer?
While it’s true that drill has been used by gang members as a means of provoking violence, to ban an entire sub-genre of music seems misguided (as well as being logistically impossible). The furore over drill music is best viewed as the latest of a series of moral panics about the music listened to by young people.
Like all of its predecessors, it will pass. We will look back and laugh at how exaggerated some of the reactions (predominantly from older generations) to drill were. Knife and gun crime will most likely continue to be prevalent in deprived inner-city areas like Brixton. But rather than acknowledge that music doesn’t seem to be the problem after all, politicians will find a new musical scapegoat. Young people have been making music that frightens authority figures for decades.
Rock music was blamed for drug use, metal was blamed for spreading Satanism, and emo was blamed for teen self-harm.
And of course, hip-hop has been a target of moral disdain since its early days. Back in 1989, N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” led the FBI to write a letter to N.W.A’s record label condemning the group for “Advocating violence and assault”, and to blame the song for attacks against police. Sound familiar at all? “Fuck Tha Police” was banned from radio stations, but gangsta rap was ultimately unstoppable, because it has a message that resonates with people.
Another important issue to consider in the drill debate is that of race. Drill, like other forms of hip-hop, is a predominantly black music genre, and it’s no secret that the London Metropolitan Police (as well as the wider UK police force) have a long history of racially discriminatory practices towards black Britons. For example, while as a white woman, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever be subject to a baseless stop-and-search on the street, this is regularly experienced by men of colour in the capital. According to 2016-17 figures, Black people are 9 times more likely than white people to be searched for drugs, with drug-related searches being the most common type of stop-and-search. Critics argue that it’s a form of racial profiling, leading young men to feel criminalised for being black in public. There’s an argument for the targeting of predominantly black music genres being a form of racial profiling, too.
When a genre of music associated with a given community is seen as so dangerous that it should be banned, how does that impact perceptions of that community more broadly? Can we really expect any kind of drill ban to be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, when black men are already so frequently the targets of unfair treatment from the police? I don’t think so.
A report published by The Youth Violence Commission identifies the “real root causes” of youth violence as being “childhood trauma, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, inadequate state provision and deficient parental support, poverty and social inequality”. But within an austerity context, it’s impossible to adequately address these issues.
Drill music is an easy scapegoat, but ultimately, rather than focusing upon what is merely a symptom of a much deeper issue, we need to be addressing the socio-economic issues that underlie gang violence.