On a warm spring evening in early May, 17-year-old Rhyhiem Barton was shot while playing football with friends in Kennington in south London. He died at the scene shortly afterwards, the 62nd person to be murdered in London this year. His mother, Pretana Morgan, described the streets as “paved with blood”, and – in reference to the surge in violent crime in the city – pleaded to the TV news cameras, “Let my son be the last, and be an example to everyone. Just let it stop.”
As Rhyhiem Barton was a rapper in the UK drill crew Moscow17 – performing as GB – his murder has drawn fresh attention to an ongoing media frenzy connecting the rise in violent youth crime to the genre. Police figures released at the end of April showed a 44 percent rise in the annual murder rate in London – 157 homicides compared to 109 the previous year (although for context, if you go back to 2003-4, there were more than 200).
Off the back of these figures, two strident and competing lines of argument on the issue of drill’s relationship with street violence have arisen. On the one hand, British tabloids like the Daily Mail were quick to blame the “disturbing new form of British rap” for a “surge in gang killings”, and the Metropolitan Police have promised to treat rappers like terror suspects for making music “glamorising serious violence”. On the other, fans and supporters of the music have claimed this is just another baseless moral panic – like that over ‘video nasties’ or 90s gangster rap – and drill artists are “literally just telling a story”, as DJ Bempah put it on BBC Radio 4. But to different degrees, both sides are missing the nuances: when it comes to drill, unpicking the links between violent music and real world violence is harder than ever.
Sadly, it's simply not correct to say the music is always ‘just art’ and its storytelling is unconnected to what may happen on the streets. Local fans paying close attention to the genre know about the actual beefs between crews from rival estates, and drill is marked out from other genres by the level of specific IRL descriptions of some of the threats, clashes and retributions. For example: the family of 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall, who was stabbed to death last August, believe his murder was foreshadowed by drill videos between young crews in Croydon. Is the music the soundtrack to a vague backdrop of general violence, or is it intensifying specific pre-existing tensions?
While we know nothing about Rhyhiem Barton’s death beyond its inherent tragedy, another young man – a boy – gone before his 18th birthday, the musical beefs still hang in the air. On Tuesday 8 May, three days after his death, a commemorative march took place from his home on the Brandon Estate in Kennington to nearby Peckham, and the young crowd chanted the lyrics to “Moscow March”, an ominous anthem from Barton’s group Moscow17 (see below). The track boasts of the crew's "scoreboard" (tally of the number of enemies they have stabbed) and taunts their opps, rival drill crew Zone 2 from Peckham, while Barton's verse casually describes him chinging, blading, drenching and slashing – all slang terms for stabbing.
On the top deck of the 363 bus going past the commemorative march that evening, a group of teenage girls still in their school uniforms peered out the window, and expressed their frustration about the futility of pleading to some higher authority for justice. "It's not like the government is killing us,” said one, “we're killing ourselves." Her mate replied that there were other things to consider – poverty, a lack of opportunities. It was a more sophisticated discussion than you'd hear from most of the British media.
London's Metropolitan Police are, of course, unequivocal about the connection between drill and youth violence. Commissioner Cressida Dick – head of the Met – has called on YouTube and social media sites to work with them to take down videos that incite violence, resulting in the removal of at least 30 videos. More worryingly, the Met’s gang crime chief Jim Stokley said on Wednesday that new measures will enable them to bring convictions for incitement without any proof music videos were linked to specific acts of violence: exactly the infringement of free speech and artistic licence fans have been worried about.
And according to one person working in youth justice, who asked not to be named, police officers focusing on gang crime know who everyone in the local drill scene is, and read all of the YouTube comments. The difference to moral panics over gangster rap in the 1990s, and UK garage in the early 2000s, is the specificity of threats and beefs between crews, or individual MCs and the amplification of those sends online. Drill – as evidenced by the Moscow17 lyrics, and so many others – is wrapped up in a swirling yet specific toxic atmosphere of gossip, rumours, humiliations, and taunting Snapchats or Instagram Stories of riding on opp blocks.
Tragically, Rhyhiem Barton's case was not an isolated one. Fellow south Londoners and teenage rappers Mdot and Showkey have both been murdered in the last two years. Most recently, Devone Pusey, 20, and Kai Stewart, 18, of south London's BSide crew, were convicted of murdering 22-year-old Dean Pascal-Modeste, an aspiring producer from local rivals Splash (two 18-year-olds, also affiliated with BSide, had already been convicted of the same murder). Issuing his verdict, Judge Nicholas Cooke said: "Such violence is often fuelled by musical taunts online... Music, of course, does not kill people. Music is a great cause for good, whatever genre or type. But there is legitimate concern about the glamorisation of violence in some of the material we hear in these cases."
But is it glamorising, as Cooke says, or merely documenting? Violence, and specifically violence in the impoverished inner city areas that birthed drill, doesn’t come from nowhere. MC AM, from the south London drill group 410, sees drill less as a public menace, and more like a desperate cry for help. “There's so many aspects to this, but there are deeper problems going on in the communities, and until those problems are solved, the violence is going to keep going on. The media, the government – the people at the top – they don't want public attention on those negative externalities of the economy, they don't want people to see what's going on. But the public can see those problems right now, because drill music is drawing attention to it. Their attitude is, 'If we can shut down the music, everyone will feel safer'; but that doesn't mean [the violence] is not going to still go on, just like it did before.”
While renouncing any connection to violence or criminality, AM isn't about to bow to calls for self-censorship. “We're going to keep pushing the music, until something is done about the actual problems.” he said. Framed like this, drill's descriptions of young lives blighted by violence and a suffocating lack of options take on a very different aspect. “I feel like there are minor negatives to do with this music – the most I would say is, you might aggravate someone else from another area, when you're directly talking about them, but I don't agree with the idea that people listen to it and re-enact the violence, because that's not true in any other scenario: it's not true for films, it's not true for violent video games.”
Drill and violent crime’s “chicken-and-egg conundrum” is an important thing to consider, especially as its young stars develop substantial fan bases outside their neighbourhoods. A fortnight ago, an upbeat atmosphere permeated Drake-endorsed teen driller Loski's first headline show at the O2 Islington Academy in north London. His blasé sweetboy flow and the bubbling swagger of recent singles “Forrest Gump” and “Cool Kid” seem to mark a departure from the glowering menace and masked-up crews most commonly associated with drill. That said, even these shimmering club-focused tracks are littered with casual references to stabbing. “Cool Kid” (watch above) manages to fit three different slang words for stabbing into just seven words: “splash, what a chinger, turn them swimmer”. Another track called simply “Drill” opens with a clip from a TV newsreader, speaking portentously about criminal gangs' use of social media to escalate rivalries, while on another new track, “Splash”, Loski compares himself to Jack the Ripper.
But there's a disjunction between the grim and incessant violence in the lyrics and a warm and convivial concert atmosphere, and the all-ages crowd both arrive and go home happy: Beatlemania-style screaming in the moshpit welcomes the moment when Loski throws a large wad of £5 notes into the crowd. “Drill music isn't just violence this, violence that,” Loski said to me over the phone, the day before the show. “You can talk however you want on any drill beat. Like that Big Shaq guy, the comedian, he made one of the biggest songs on a drill beat there is [the official video for “Man's Not Hot” now has more than 270 million YouTube views] – but no-one calls that drill.”
As Loski's crowd slowly dispersed into the north London night, his fans were weary of the music being demonised. “They're trying to blame it on drill, it's obviously just scapegoating,” said Amanda Starr, 33. “You have to go to the core root,” added her friend Aaron, 39, “because this music is just a ripple effect of something deeper: problems in the communities, a lack of opportunities, absentee parents, poverty.” Reggie Kerr, 38, drew attention to government cuts, which have seen numerous youth clubs and other public services closed down in recent years. “What you see when you walk out your front door is youth clubs closing and being replaced by bookies and liquor stores: there are more liquor stores than there are libraries. And if you go two miles down the road, you have a much richer demographic, and it's the opposite way around.”
Whatever the tabloids and police may say, drill isn't going away. The genre's popularity in London is hard to overstate – to the point that some grime fans feel like they are suddenly a tiny minority. It's no coincidence that teenage grime MC Yizzy's new EP is called SOS, short for Save Our Sound. And with drill still under the microscope, even while leading lights like Loski, and Skengdo and AM move into the mainstream, advocates for the young people in danger are desperately needed. Elena Noel – co-chair of the Anti-Knife Crime Forum – works with the teenage boys at the centre of this crisis, and stakeholders approaching youth violence from a strategic level. As a result, she has seen where things have gone wrong over many years, and believes a much deeper understanding of the roots of youth violence is needed, as well as a change in policy.
“Really it's not about youth on the streets,” Noel told me. “It's about policy decisions that were made 20 years ago.” She said millions of pounds had been spent on tackling increasingly territorial youth and gang crime, but had failed due to poor spending decisions and a lack of accountability and understanding of the possibility of 'gang exit' routes into employment, education, and better mental health. “The problem is when policy makers don't understand systemic disadvantage, and don't understand the chronology of social problems in poor areas: we're now dealing with an epidemic of rage – but many of these children are the grandchildren of the first crack addicts in the 1980s.”
Noel is a long-standing gangs mediator – her first referral was based on a YouTube rap video a decade ago, before drill existed. “What you find when you work closely with these boys, is behind their scary masks they are often low in self-esteem, but hugely aspirational, and very bright. What they talk about in drill is how bad life is for them, that they're disenfranchised. And with unstable family backgrounds, they turn to an alternative family: the family on the street.”
Grassroots music always reflects reality, and always should do. And we should be unequivocal in defending artistic license, whatever the genre. Drill music does not load the gun, or fire the trigger. But waving our hands around defensively and pretending this is all completely unconnected to the young people dying on our streets isn’t just wrong – it’s a disservice to the young people who need society’s help the most.
You can find Dan on Twitter.
Dan's book 'Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime' is out now.