When politicians let us down, we vote them out – or at least we're supposed to. With the police, it doesn't really work like that. And that's where a device like Form 696 – the paperwork used by London's Metropolitan Police to assess whether a DJ or MC set meets their safety standards – gets uncomfortable. The risk assessment form is a prime example of a simple solution being applied to a complicated issue, making the innocent people caught at the centre of it feel powerless.
Introduced in 2005, Form 696 is used to measure the risk of violence at music events in London by gathering the personal details of artists and promoters. But the small print on the type of shows it's used for means it tends to impact nights when genres such as grime, garage, R&B and house are played. This week it's back in the news because a Conservative MP, culture minister Matt Hancock, has written a letter to London mayor Sadiq Khan, suggesting it might be time for a rethink. While the direct causal (and not coincidental) link between the form and less violence has never been prominently argued, 696's continued use clearly illustrates a fear. It's not a fear of "urban" genres per se. After all, that music's eagerly consumed by white/mixed audiences now more than ever before, and in the last two years grime has seen its popularity rise to a scale compared to punk. Rather, it demonstrates the insidious sort of prejudice that permeates British society and how a need to police one "deviant" part of a population then ends up tarring bystanders with the same brush.
Speaking on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme earlier this week, grime artist P Money described his sense of how the form works: "In my experience when it's normally a night where it is predominantly black people, without fail 696 Form comes out of nowhere – you have to do it. But when I've done shows where it's not predominantly black people, I don't have to do the form." Indeed, it's only applicable to events with "DJs or MCs performing to a recorded backing track" – and those have historically tended to be attended largely by people of black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. And so, on multiple occasions, the form has been used to shut events down. This isn't a new idea. We've seen a moral panic rise around black art before, from the reaction to the radical politics of jazz to the sexuality of blues. Now, this feels like the latest iteration of that idea.
Writer Dan Hancox has described grime as a "unique incarnation of Afrofuturism – the African diasporic aesthetic that takes science fiction as a tool for discussing oppression and freedom", and in the book More Brilliant Than the Sun Kodwo Eshun draws attention to the importance of sound within that aesthetic. In another book, Steve Goodman's Sonic Warfare, black music is further characterised as "a sonic weapon in a postcolonial war with Eurocentric culture over the vibrational body and its power to affect". All of which is to say that being able to express yourself through art becomes an important part of your identity. And when that's stifled, it hurts. Speaking to several promoters, I get the sense they feel black music is only allowed to exist on the terms of the majority – so long as it doesn't get too big for its boots.
Danny "Falz" Fahey, a former MC and promoter with a 25-year career in the music business says: "For me, as a culture maker, I feel there's a massive amount of value in violent and misogynistic music, because it's proof of the conditions of the community from which these artists are emerging." Excusing misogyny is a ridiculous notion, but Fahey wants to make a broader point. He goes on to say that he means these stories, with their brashness or vulgarity, are trying to highlight shit conditions so that they can inspire change. "There are artists who've gone on record, artists like Giggs, who've said, 'listen I wanna get as far away from the reality of these stories that I'm telling.' And that is where the value is – this type of music is proof of the condition." But the lyrical content, and concern about it, is one thing. Form 696 seems to create guilt by association, or to penalise people who've been involved with the justice system. Giggs is a prime example, his 2010 tour cancelled because of his rap sheet.
Watch our 2014 documentary on Form 696, 'The Police Vs Grime Music':
Much like stop-and-search, the use of the form can feel like a type of psychological warfare against BAME communities. "Basically it's saying, 'we aren't going to protect you – we're going to treat you all like suspects'," one black artist and former promoter from south London said, asking to remain anonymous. "Black music is a part of black culture and black culture is viewed through the lens of criminality. 696 is another way to engage with black criminality. Black people don't wanna talk to the police, so what they do is make doorways like this in order to show that they are doing something. They don't say, 'we understand that there's social problems and we're going to address them.' They don't deal with violence at these events like they would at football matches. They just shut down the raves because that takes the least manpower and they can get away with it."
I also talked to a London-based promoter who's booked debut headline shows with some of the newest stars in grime. Again, for fear of being singled out, they asked to remain anonymous. "We've had a few experiences mainly when we've done shows in south London where we've had shows heavily questioned, which can cause issues with the venue and so on," they told me over email. "That being said, I don't think we should revoke the form. I think we should refine it and move forward together with the police. Nobody wants to put on a show where people might be in real danger. But when the shows are being pulled because a friend of a friend of a friend of an artist has committed a crime when they were growing up, or an artist who used to be involved in street life has changed and is trying to provide for his family can't do a show, that will cause more issues in the long run."
That's why it's time to re-examine the form. The police last did so in 2009, drawing a direct link between introducing form 696 and a decrease violent incidents at live gigs – but who's to say that wasn't part of a broader trend with crime rates in London? There's no real interrogation of exactly how anyone can prove that collecting the addresses and real names of MCs and DJs has magically lowered violent crime rates at gigs. But would revoking it do much, or would they just replace one bureaucratic model with another? "I don't have all the answers but the police should come together with agents, promoters and managers to have an open table discussion," the anonymous London promoter I spoke with said. "The solutions that will come from that is the only way we can progress."
Fahey has a different view. He believes a much more radical approach would protect the culture. "My personal perspective is nighttime promoters and artists should stand as strong as possible in their format. The authorities should not be able to dictate what format you present your art. On a practical level, that means not filling in the form, being prepared to take the hits and continue. When you dilute the culture it's detrimental to the community."
You could argue Form 696 only affects the livelihoods of a small proportion of people, but for the audiences and artists who lose out, it has much bigger repercussions. Crucially, it represents the reality of life within BAME communities – of constantly having to prove your worth or innocence, of having to try that extra bit harder, of not being seen as equal. You can't deny the importance of keeping everyone at a gig safe, but there should be a way to do that that allows for more nuance than what we have in place now. Based on my conversations with these promoters, Form 696 doesn't have to be the only option. And that's is why we need to review the form, with the force of a bar spat over 140BPM.
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