London is a capital city that contains multitudes. A leading financial hub, a home to world-class universities and arts colleges, an epicentre of culture – it’s a lot of things to a lot of people, all connected by the tracks of the world’s oldest metro system. Jump on one of those trains though and toward the city’s outer reaches – places like Walthamstow, Elm Park, Forest Hill – and the capital’s architectural promise becomes a distant memory, replaced with blocks of social housing and coloured in the kind of run-down hues befitting of England’s famously dreary weather.
It’s here – in the end-of-the-line zones where born-and-bred Londoners live – that UK drill music was conceived. A relative of the Chicago sound of the same name, UK drill shares many similarities with its American counterpart. The stars are young (Chicago had Chief Keef, who signed to Interscope at 16; London has Loski, whose break-out single “Hazards” was released when he was the same age); the music is concrete-hard, typically reflecting the harsh realities encroaching on its creators; and crucially – of the moment – it’s being pinpointed as part of a decade-high spike in teenage homicide rates.
Just like its midwestern cousin, rap conflict and gang conflict often overlap in UK drill. And as far as facts go, music videos intended to incite violence or a reaction from a rival gang have acted as evidence in several murder trials in the past few years (see these from 2016 and 2018). But this overlap is also where undeniable truth ends, and moral panic begins. With knife crime in Britain at an eight-year high, drill is now partly being blamed for a recent spate of killings – more than 50 in London so far this year. Yet to look at music as the source of the problem is a blunt refusal to peel back the layers of society, to neglect the reality of the environment sitting at the end of the line, to turn a blind eye to root causes.
Broadsheet newspaper The Times is the most prominent recent voice behind the attack on UK drill. A front page spread in last Saturday 7 April’s print edition led with the headline “Top DJ Tim Westwood profits from gangs”. Sister paper The Sunday Times posted a follow up investigation called “Drill, the ‘demonic’ music linked to rise in youth murders”. Two important things to note here are: a) one of the examples listed in the Sunday Times piece isn’t drill (they cite the use of lyrics in the 2015 sentencing of Rickell Rogers, a rapper and not a drill artist), meaning their investigation features just two pieces of evidence linking drill to the rise in youth murders (the 2016 and 2018 examples listed above), which is one less than the number of journalists it took to write the piece; and b) the political stance of The Times is Conservative, which speaks volumes about their decision to target drill instead of, say, government austerity and cuts in police resources.
Although drill contains a tapestry of street culture and lingo – songs are peppered with phrases like “going cunch” (a term referring to London gang members operating country drug lines, which is on the rise), “trapping” and “chefing” – it’s reflective of its environment, rather than actively influencing its listeners. It has millions of fans, a minimal number of them involved in gang activity, and the correlation between listening to drill and committing violence is tenuous. As DJ Bempah, of drill group 67, put it on Radio Four on Monday morning: “[Drill] is just real life content, you talk about things that happen from day to day, what happened down the road from your house... Music can affect your emotions but it can’t affect what you do outside. It can’t make you go outside and stab someone.”
In reality a considerable amount of factors have likely lead to the rise in youth murders in London. To that end, each politician has their own view on what the cause might be and what needs to change to stop the spread of violence. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, believes we need more police on our streets (thanks to budget cuts, we now have less bobbies on the beat in England and Wales than we did ten years ago), while home secretary Amber Rudd, member of the austerity-loving Tory party, believes otherwise, ignoring a leaked report that suggests budget cuts are to blame for the rise in crime. In other places blame has fallen on the rise in social media, the link between crime and London’s seemingly-never-ending penchant for cocaine, post-code wars. And in a nuanced piece published for VICE yesterday, Max Daly surmised that conversations spilling out across social networks compounds youth violence, intensifying fueds to an audience of thousands.
But regardless of the perceived issue, these potential causes may all swirl in the same circle – one that closes tightly around those who live in lower-class areas, choking off the resources to improve their quality of life and future prospects. When austerity rises, so does crime; with jobs few and far between, life on road can seem appealing. Yet with less police around, it’s inevitable that there will be more violence. And so, the root causes of the issue need to be tackled – the lack of youth centres in lower class areas needs to be rectified, mental health services need to be more readily available. More than anything the marginalised in society need to stop being ignored; they deserve the opportunity to be seen as more than the group of people at the end of the tracks, away from the city, out of sight and out of mind until it’s too late, as is the case here. Ostensibly, the rise in youth killing isn’t a UK music issue, it’s a UK government issue. Saying otherwise is mad.
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