For all the potential opportunities UK drill provides, the police, government and tabloid press still see the genre as single-handedly inciting city-wide violence. So thank god, then, for new research from City, University of London, published in the British Journal of Criminology, that argues the authorities’ targeting is misguided and does more harm than good.
The lengthily titled Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why Criminalizing Drill Music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive brings academic nous to a music genre that’s long been over-reported when it comes to street crime, and barely touched in regard to its often ambiguous lyrical nature. The paper states that interpreting UK drill as little more than incitement to violence ultimately dismisses the ability of those who make it to participate in abstract artistic expression and cultural complexity. It summarises the authorities' approach as couched in decades-long racial stereotyping of young black men as gang members, leaving little room for fair and nuanced discourse.
Since the genre’s rise from south London in 2016, UK drill artists have been subject to injunctions, bans and supervision orders. Their lyrics were used as evidence against them in criminal trials. In January 2019, British duo Skengdo & AM were sentenced to nine months in prison for performing their song “Attempted 1.0” during a show at London’s KOKO in December of the previous year. In June 2018, drill crew 1011 effectively had their career cut short when landmark court orders were served, banning them from making music without police permission. The list goes on.
With 30 videos removed from YouTube at the request of the Met Police between 2018/19, UK drill has been policed, criminalised and used as a scapegoat for wider societal problems in the UK, primarily due to a perceived connection between the simultaneous rise of the genre and knife crime. Plenty of nonviolent topics are covered in UK drill (like isolation, loss and the claustrophobia of the urban areas it is created in), but the genre became synonymous with round after round of young knife crime tragedies on UK streets.
This, in part, was due to the authorities’ tendency to focus on and vilify the more violent drill lyrics. In 2018, the Met police built a database of 1,400 UK drill videos, with police commissioner Cressida Dick stating the genre is “associated with lyrics glamourising serious violence: murder, stabbings”.
Dr Jonathan Ilan, who authored the paper, says not enough context is being given to the genre’s lyrics. “Drill can be violent, but I thought not enough attention was being paid to what else [the lyrics] could mean,” he says. “I saw that in certain court cases, police forces were relying on translators – rap translators. There was an admission that the language being used was difficult for a middle class or official audience to understand. They didn’t take into account the notion of context.”
UK drill is packed with UK centric street lingo, ranging from the casual (“ten toes” – on road; “bill” – roll a joint) to criminal (“OT” – out of town; or “going cunch” – going country, both in relation to county lines drug dealing). Dr Ilan says the context of the particularly violent bars should be considered.
“When people say things that might sound serious, we can understand they’re a joke, because of the way they’re said. But this wasn’t happening with drill. As soon as the plain meaning was determined, it was taken as literal truth,” he says. Ilan says that it’s problematic to take the notion of killing somebody in a lyric as literal truth, because there can be many different contexts.
“If people were talking about killing somebody, the automatic assumption is that it’s murder. But if you know anything about street music, you know killing somebody can be a number of things – It can be performing better than them lyrically. It could refer to a killing, but you have to determine that by context – and there didn’t seem to be any attention [put on that].”
As part of his study, Ilan coined the term "street illiteracy" – a flip on the concept of 'street literacy', which is a notion developed by Canadian ethnographer Dwight Conquergood to describe how residents of a specific area could decipher street graffiti, whereas those not from the area could not. Street illiteracy is essentially what your nan, the police and your school teacher all suffer from – they’re a) not familiar with the language of the street; and/or b) aren’t involved with the culture and therefore don’t understand the different nuances and complexities of communication. Ilan's paper raises the question: has the UK establishment engaged with UK drill on a street literate level (clue: not a lot) and to what extent has that potentially affected the legal processes surrounding it.
“Considering our historical commitment to freedom of speech in a democratic society, the whole edifice of thinking of song lyrics as potential evidence in a criminal trial is slightly outlandish and ropey,” he tells me. “The example I give is... How many people believe Johnny Cash really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die? Everyone understands that’s art. It’s abstract. So why, when someone is disadvantaged and of colour, is there a temptation to see what they’re saying as literal truth?”
Working through several UK trials and drawing from a range of song lyrics and references, the paper concludes that criminalising UK drill places a roadblock in front of potential career prospects and improved socio-economic outcomes for the communities most affected by the violence the government is trying to eradicate.
“The knee-jerk reaction to see the music as a problem, rather than an example of culture and opportunity, is something that needs to be considered. Disadvantaged young men of colour are constantly being told to deal with their emotions more constructively – but they do it, then get told what they’re doing is inciting violence. I can see that being immensely frustrating,” says Ilan.
He continues: “Anything that causes resentment for questionable reasons needs to be looked at. We should be improving relationships between the marginalised and the authorities. Criminalising drill without good reason will make everything worse.”
You can read the full paper here via the British Journal of Criminology.