Since its arrival to the UK (and, predominantly, South London) in around 2012, the genre of Drill music has sparked controversy for its often violent and provocative lyrics and music videos. In the UK the genre has taken off on YouTube, where the artists produce videos to accompany their tracks. Some of these tracks attract millions of views and many Drill artists have gone on to have lucrative careers within the music industry as a result. Whilst the genre itself may be relatively young, sadly its story already appears to be history repeated. Drill is another music genre that is racialised by the police through its perceived links to gang activity.
It is becoming all too common for Drill lyrics and music videos to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings against individuals charged with gang related offences, such as those involving weapons and/or violence.
Many individuals, most commonly young Black men who are predominantly London based, are therefore finding themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, often without due cause, because of their association with the genre and the close eye that the Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) keeps on those within the Drill circle. Not only is this leading to the criminalisation of a culture, it also creates a space for perpetuating stereotypes about young Black men.
The Met and CPS consider even a brief appearance in a music video as sufficient evidence to link an individual with a crime. We are also now seeing the emergence of “Drill injunctions” – a Criminal Behaviour Order that places restrictions on individuals making Drill music and what content can be included, for claims that their music “incites violence”.
There is no denying that Drill lyrics can be very violent and controversial, however, to go as far as saying that they “incite violence” raises questions. Before Drill music came to the UK, we still had issues with gang and knife crime, particularly in London. We do not seem to conflate any other art-form that includes violence (such as film, books, video-games) with character in the same way that we do with rap music. As UK Drill artist, DrillMinister, so aptly put it, “Drill doesn’t cause violence, it is a reflection of violence”.
Music has always been used as a form of expression and a way of storytelling, often laden with figurative and evocative language. The genre of Drill is designed to shock and invoke a strong reaction. For many of these artists, it is a platform to reflect upon the reality of the world that they live in inner-city London as young Black men. But to use this artistic form of expression as a literal narrative about their lives is problematic, particularly where the more “shocking” the track, the higher the number of views and the more successful it is. To then take this further by imposing injunctions that prevent artists from producing certain types of music is the censoring of a community and an infringement of their right to free speech.
For many Drill artists, the art-form is a way into the music industry where connections and unlimited funds aren’t required. Some artists are finding themselves being picked up by record labels after producing successful tracks on YouTube, which leads to lucrative careers where they become popular in the mainstream. Headie One is just one example of this, who, after rising to fame following the success of his Drill videos on YouTube, went on to record a song in 2020 with one of the most well-known US rappers in popular music, Drake.
The notion of a “gang” is generally ill-defined and heavily racialised, where Black males are grossly over represented in police gang databases, sometimes merely because of where they live. This disproportionate application by the police of the term “gang” to young Black males enhances stereotypical images of Black male criminality. This is now amplified by the Met’s use of Drill music as a vehicle for increased surveillance and over-policing, leading in some cases to unlawful arrests.
Drill is an art-form and a means of expression, and its current place within the criminal justice system is highly problematic.
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