The censoring of music is nothing new, from Elvis Presley being banned for apparently being “sexually explicit” to the robust stance taken by the FBI against N.W.A and particularly their song “Fuck the Police”. In Britain there have historically also been clampdowns on music that the conservative government didn’t understand or didn’t agree with. You don’t have to look much further than “Form 696” a risk assessment form that crippled the Grime scene for more than a decade, making it practically impossible for Grime MC’s to perform in London as the Metropolitan Police (MET) could simply shut down the show because it was seen as dangerous.
However the “696” would be nothing compared to the manner in which the MET, media and even parliament would approach a new sound that was becoming increasingly popular on Youtube with videos on big platforms such as GRM Daily, LinkUp TV, SBTV and Tim Westwood TV garnering millions of views. Skepta might have gone mainstream and was collaborating with Drake on an arguably culturally appropriating album, I mean playlist, but the underground sound had shifted. 2015 saw the explosion of UK Drill.
UK Drill borrows a lot from its US counterpart born in Southside Chicago with pioneers of the genre like Chief Keef popularising the sound around the world. UK Drill however is far more nihilistic, depressing, confrontational and raw, everything the Grime scene had lost by going mainstream. MC’s are clad in balaclavas, tracksuits and Nike trainers spitting slang-heavy bars filled with references to knife violence, drug dealing and digs at rival crews in neighbouring areas/postcodes.
So why has the genre attracted so much attention as well as controversy as of late? Well in short it is being used as a scapegoat for the MET to explain an increase in knife violence and murders within London especially amongst teenagers. And the MET are tirelessly pushing the blame on UK Drill as being the predominant cause. This has gone so far that the police have as of February this year succeeded in making YouTube take down 102 of the 129 drill videos they have flagged for perpetuating and possibly inciting violence as reported in Fader. These included videos by some of the biggest groups in the Drill scene including Harlem Spartans and 1011.
This is all part of “Operation Domain” a unit which was created in an attempt to scan social media platforms to tackle homicide and gang related crimes. This has not only lead to the takedown of videos, however, with the MET meticulously scanning the lyrical content to look for ties to crimes committed in real life. This is also partially the reason why many of the MC’s hide their faces in music videos. As the phrase goes “no face, no case” and it is easy to see why artists such as LD from mega group 67 would take this approach.
Over the past few years many Drill MC’s have been in an out of prison on charges ranging from possession of lethal weapons (usually knives) to their drill groups getting gang injunctions and officially being classified by the police as an active gang. This is an unprecedented form of censorship which even saw drill artists Skengdo and A.M from Brixton group 410 make history by becoming the first artists to receive jail sentences (although suspended sentences) for performing a song which had been banned under the same gang injunction law.
Crackdowns on UK Drill artists however have raised serious concerns over censorship and freedom of expression in the UK as stated by Kenan Malik in his article for The Guardian in which he questions the motive behind the sanctions as he argues that even if the police claim that the lyrics glamorise violence that this in itself is not an illegal offense, if it was, graphically violent films such as American Psycho (2000) could also be banned.
Further issues arise when you look at the method the MET has adopted in trying to stop knife violence on the ground level – the MET have adopted an enormous stop and search strategy that, for me, raises serious alarms. Handing that amount of power over to police officers to stop and search any person they find suspicious is highly problematic as it opens the door for racial profiling on an unprecedented scale. This strategy will also never be effective as further alienating young black citizens will only have a domino effect on the already rocky relationship between residents of the boroughs and law enforcement. Research published in 2017 shows that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups are already eight times more like to be stopped and search by police than white people with as much as three quarters of young BAME people believing that they are being unfairly targeted, this misuse of power is something we have seen extensively in the American context and has had detrimental results on a far wider societal scale.
Iman Amrani’s article also for The Guardian perfectly summarises my stance on the matter. Despite the violent nature of the lyrics no genre of music exists in a vacuum as she just like Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn point to socio-economic issues rather than Youtube music videos for the rise in violent crimes in London’s boroughs: “young people are struggling in comparison to older generations thanks to a lack of jobs and an expensive housing market, and cuts to youth services, lack of mental health provisions and rising inequality are all contributing factors to the current spate in youth violence.”
The debate in the UK rages on and has seemingly now become and incredibly pressing matter for a government under pressure from all sides. Although Amrani’s perspective is something I would suggest all UK members of parliament internalise.
“Instead of muzzling what drill is trying to tell us, we need to see it as a rich, organic resource with which impactful conversations between educators and the most anxious, angry young people can be mined.” It is in essence an outcry by some of the most marginalised members of society, a plea to be heard in a country in which they feel isolated and failed. Drill isn’t a call to arms it’s merely a reflection on the harsh realities of the everyday lives of a part of London the British government is trying to sweep under the rug.