UK Drill & Youth Violence: The Final Word

Words: Ciaran Thapar

On a Sunday evening last November, that time of year when you can feel the cold grip of winter tighten each day, I found out the brother of a boy I mentor had been stabbed to death. During the same week, another boy I mentor was robbed at knifepoint whilst walking through the wrong part of Brixton, South London, punished for disregarding the fickle code of the roads.

The following Friday evening after leaving work, I was beelining across the busy, regenerated Elephant & Castle roundabout. But my path was intercepted by a young man in front of me pulling out a black kershaw knife from his tracksuit bottoms. He swung it at another man near him, who dodged the attack and flicked out his own blade. For a few seconds the pair swiped at one another, so I shouted at them to stop and they looked up, self-conscious, before dispersing into the crowds of commuters. We were surrounded by hundreds of people, yet nobody seemed to notice what had happened; it was as if I’d imagined the whole entire thing. I walked home tearful, feeling helpless.

“They Say Drill Music Is Why All The kids Are dying today Iyt Kool But I Was In Primary School When I Saw Someone Gushing With Blood What Was The Influence Then [sic]?” tweeted 67’s Dimzy earlier this month, in response to the media frenzy blaming drill music for London’s youth violence epidemic. I keep reading his words because, unlike most commentary on this topic, the question he asks is sharpened by first-hand experience. It answers itself: violence begets violence.

Over the last three years I have held hundreds of discussion workshops and conversations with teenagers in South London. I’ve heard them talk about brothers or cousins or uncles who have been stabbed. I’ve heard them recount stories of witnessing a knife being brandished in the street, or finding a balaclava on their sibling’s bedroom floor, or hearing gunshots echo across their housing estate. After a desperate attempt to feel protected on his journey home, one boy on my programme was excluded from school for carrying dismantled scissors in his blazer pocket. “I feel like I’m living in a war,” another boy, who couldn’t last a day without being sent out of a lesson, once told me. “He’s too easily distracted!” his teachers would rant. You don’t say.

It just so happens that over the period of time in which Brixton has become my home, the wildfire of drill music has caught aflame. On any evening at Marcus Lipton Community Centre in northeast Brixton, where I volunteer and where several local drill artists hang out, as food bubbles on the stove and people play Fifa, you can always count on a rumbling drill beat to provide the soundtrack. For many young people, it is more than music to be consumed: it’s a way of life and a ‘voice of the streets’, as gatekeeper Kenny Allstar self-describes. If you zoom outwards, I would argue it is a war report on life in the urban trenches of austerity Britain.

In 2016, I noticed that the more I could talk about drill music, the more depth I could achieve in conversations with young people. Driven by my lifelong interest in London music, combined with the determination to be effective at my job as a youth worker, I started documenting the genre’s rise through my writing. For months I would sit down to run workshops with my mentees and we would collaboratively unpick and debate all things drill: the beefs, geographies, videos, lyrics and more. One time, a boy in Year 8 sat slouched in the canteen at lunchtime detention, his performative screwface staring at the floor, so I went over to chat to him. We hadn’t met before. He gave one word answers to my questions, refusing to show any weakness or vulnerability, or interest in what I had to say. But when other students started trickling into the room and one yelled at me: “Sir, you heard the new Harlem track?” the young man’s eyes widened, his mask of bravado slackened, and his normal twelve-year-old self was freed. I had conducted a whole year of trust-building in two minutes. From that moment on, he became one of my most committed mentees.

What fascinates me most about drill is its ethical complexity. “Do violent lyrics reflect an honest social reality and therefore serve the purpose of empowering its artists? Or do they reinforce and exacerbate the issues they describe?” I posed in a long-read for FACT last April, for which I interviewed top producer Carns Hill in a pub on Brixton Hill. He kept stressing to me how he saw his beats as a platform for elevating his community. “It’s not my mission to make violence and my past acceptable in society. Drill is a good platform to get you recognised as an artist, but then you have to expand from there,” 410’s AM told me when I later interviewed him and Skengdo in the damp car park of their estate. And I have remained caught by the lyricism of Harlem Spartans’ MizOrMac—the way he switches so effortlessly between bars of outrageous violence and those of deep, social reflection. “I grew up in the Harlem slums/trapped in the trap with packs and cats/I’m trapped in the trap with drugs/now look at what we’ve all become,” he spits on “War”.

“We can do better than to obsess over a type of music that, whether the papers like it or not, simply bangs.”

In January of this year, after being invited to attend a discussion on the topic of violent social media content in Parliament, I wrote a piece for The Guardian outlining my take on drill’s undeniable but uncertain connection to youth violence. Anticipating that it was only a matter of time before mainstream publications would freak-out on discovering the music’s extreme content, I tried to set a standard of informed compassion rather than hollow blame.

Sure enough, catalysed in-part by Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick’s denouncing of social media, and Amber Rudd denying that cuts to police have had any impact on youth violence—despite a report from her own department suggesting otherwise—the inevitable tsunami of criticism has crashed down on drill music this month. Columnists have apparently become experts on the perspectives of young people overnight. As ever, the necessity of speed has generated a race-to-the-bottom of care. Two weeks ago, The Telegraph and then The Spectator stole my own lyrical analysis, almost verbatim, from a piece I wrote about drill in January (the latter even wrongly copied the word ‘shank’ as ‘skank’—not once, but twice). Even the (otherwise nuanced) response from The Guardian initially posted the wrong photograph of Abra Cadabra. In general, to me anyway, the broad response held a magnifying glass up to just how detached the British media establishment can be when it is competing to get clicks, and more specifically, when it is doing so with no regard for how to appropriately report on issues affecting the most ignored, powerless communities.

“The objects of moral panics… are damaging in themselves,” writes Stanley Cohen in the introduction of his seminal work Folk Devils and Moral Panics, “but also merely warning signs of the real, much deeper and more prevalent condition.” I am willing to believe that drill music, what is essentially a new folk devil—the object of moral panic—is on some level damaging in itself. In the worst cases, acts are being carried out as a result of lyrical provocation and communication over social media, and this cannot be ignored. But infinitely more pressing—in terms of seeking solutions at least—ought to be what we can find at the roots of drill. What, in Cohen’s terms, is the real, much deeper and more prevalent condition?

When I was a teenager at secondary school, I was fanatical about grime music and American rap, both of which contained violent, misogynistic and other extreme content. This was especially true circa 2005, with grime still in the rawness of its infancy (I remember taking great offence after reading about Kano’s Home Sweet Home gig at Scala being cancelled) and the likes of G-Unit and The Diplomats in their unapologetic prime. I would spend my day discussing music with friends, then I would go home and spend all evening investigating, downloading and listening to it. But my appreciation came about through escapism, not affirmation. Grime specifically taught me about inner-city life and gave me a window into this exciting, accessible but ultimately detached artform being conceived on the other side of London. I was able to disassociate from it; I could consume it from the comfort of my grammar school education, cricket games on weekends and the stable family home I am grateful to have grown up in.

The boys I’ve worked with are fanatical about drill to the same extent. But for them, the music can affirm their warped ideals about the most extreme aspects of teenage life. They do not all benefit from the privilege I had of being able to detach myself from the instructive elements of music I listened to. In this regard drill reinforces ideas about violence, and at worst, encourages it.

But it does not cause it. I strongly believe that it is the context in which young people live that makes the biggest difference here, and so it is context that should be under scrutiny. Music is the tip of a very big iceberg. Its negative influence over young minds is only activated after existing environmental factors have taken their toll: poverty, broken homes, absent fathers, misguided role models, an outdated education system, and our extremely unrepresentative media. Factors that should not exist in a country as developed and allegedly progressive as ours. And is it really any surprise that boys from single-parent homes, who are treated as an automatic problem at school and vilified in the mainstream media, seek an artform to vent their frustrations? In my mind, to restrict this energy, this desperation for a creative outlet that drove grime in its conception and is driving drill music, would be more criminal than the subject of any lyrics (even K-Trap’s).

Summer is fast approaching. In youth-working circles, this means a higher propensity for conflict is yet to come. In the words of Dave on “My 19th Birthday”: “In a weird way summer is the coldest season/you’ll get killed at a party for the smallest reason.” More than ever, we should be engaging properly with young people in struggling families, schools, youth centres and communities. That means seeing music as an opportunity to listen, learn and teach—not demonise. As campaigner Temi Mwale has argued this week, we need to develop a comprehensive approach to youth violence: to help those who have suffered in silence to overcome their trauma, to understand and overcome the way inequality affects young people’s self-image and personal investment in wider society, and to enable all children to feel safe. We can do better than to obsess over a type of music that, whether the papers like it or not, simply bangs.

Posted on April 25, 2018