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Is drill music contributing to the rise in violent crime? A Young Woman's worker speaks out

Ezimma Chigbo
Thursday 19th July 2018

“I’m going to be a sick rapper, trust me I’m going to make it!”

I was co-delivering a session at Raw Material studio with a small group of young women when I first came across this young woman who was adamant she wanted to pursue a career in music. The project gives young women aged 12-14 in Southwark space to explore conflict in their lives as well as the opportunity to learn about and express themselves through music. 

This young woman's confidence and determination both in and out of the booth was inspiring. She had with her a notebook filled with lyrics that she’d written which she boasted about adding to daily. It was clear she’d prepared for this opportunity and seemed really excited to record her track. When the time came she already knew which instrumental she wanted to record her vocals over and eagerly searched for it whilst the rest of us looked on in admiration and anticipation. It was no surprise to me when a drill beat burst through the speakers. I had not heard this particular beat before, but I was familiar with its sound, furthermore I was familiar with the emotions its sound invoked in me. My co-facilitator spoke briefly with the girls about the history of drill, mumble rap and other subgenres of hip-hop before the aforementioned young woman entered the booth to record.

In all honesty, I don’t think this aspiring young musician cared much for the history lesson, all she wanted was an opportunity to get in the booth and express herself; she could barely contain her excitement. It is unlikely that this group of young women are up to speed on the current debate around censoring drill music, and even if they are it is even less likely that they care about what the media, police or politicians have to say on the matter. What was clear to me in this session was this young woman’s need to be heard, her confidence to communicate a story and her genuine faith that this form of communication would be a much needed platform for social and economic mobility.

I am no expert on drill, but I have always viewed it as a political, provocative genre of music; a genre which articulates the intense levels of pain many young people live with. Drill lyrics can be hard to digest, they tend to be vulgar, laced in hyperbole and their intention is clearly to provoke a response or a reaction from listeners. I am well aware of how this combination of factors can fuel conflict amongst peer groups, prompting young people to react violently but I believe strongly that censoring this form of expression is not the suitable answer to that problem.

For starters, if violence is the framework that young people have for managing conflict then violence will be the inevitable outcome whenever it arises, no matter what music is listened to. Moreover, censoring this form of expression in no way addresses some of the root causes behind these lyrics and the violence this music has the potential to insight.

It would be naïve to ignore the negative messages behind most drill tracks or the way this may negatively impact young people’s lives, however it is important to understand that through this music young people are communicating something, not only to their peers but to all of society. When a young man says “I put rambo blades in chests, I put flick knives straight in necks, With a wap I'll aim for your head, If you see me you’re looking at death” – What is he really trying to communicate? As adults taking in the overtly violent lyrics and music videos being written, directed and performed by children and young adults all over the country – what message are we choosing to take from this? Is our role simply to silence these artists with some hope that the problems go away? Or do we have the capacity to meaningfully engage with the themes these artists are addressing? My view is that, it is our responsibility to create safe spaces that allow young people to explore the themes this music promotes as well as spaces which support young people to develop skills to aid them to manage conflict better.

A number of young women that I work with listen to drill. Drill music seems to have penetrated youth culture across the country, appealing to young people from a vast range of backgrounds. An experience not dissimilar to the impact hip-hop and grime music had on me and my peers when I was a teenager; or the impact jazz, rock, blues and most other forms of music had on generations before mine. Grime was so embedded in the culture of my youth that it was very difficult to analyse the music without noting its social impact. I vividly remember the way grime was framed in the media to be inciting violence amongst young people. I remember popular grime artists such as So Solid Crew, Giggs and J Hus being banned from performing their music in public arenas and I remember the message this relayed to me at the time – that stories from my community were not worth listening to.

Although this was the mainstream interpretation of grime, it was far from my personal experience of it. For me, grime music put words to so many of my experiences growing up as a working class black girl in London. Grime made my reality visible to an audience who were ignorant to the world I and my friends manoeuvred, a world that was strikingly underrepresented in mainstream media. Grime highlighted that there was a community of people who had similar experiences to mine, who shared similar frustrations about structural forms of violence such as poverty and racism that I felt victim to. Grime artists made me feel that my story was valuable, that it was worth speaking about and listening to. Were there violent, misogynistic or problematic lyrics in grime? Yes. However there was so much more to the music and to the culture than that.

Over the weekend I spent some time with my brother discussing our shared love for grime. We spoke at length about the similarities between the ways the media and the police portrayed grime in our day to how drill is being discussed today. We spoke about what it meant to us to listen to Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy In da Corner’ for the first time and compared this to the pride we feel 15 years later watching A$AP Rocky’s ‘Praise the Lord’ video featuring Skepta. Grime continues to tell a story that I am familiar with, a story which may not be prim and proper, but resembles my lived experience – a narrative which I believe is important enough to be told and to be heard.

Not everyone who listens to grime or drill music will be able to relate to it on a personal level but this does not mean that they are incapable of engaging with its themes. Young people, like the young woman described in this post, are using this music to relay their stories or the stories of others whom they usually exist in close proximity to. These stories can be challenging as they shine a light on some of the ugliest manifestations of deprivation in this country. I think it’s time we had an honest discussion about potential solutions for the causes of these conditions as opposed to its effects.

Or as Dizzee Rascal so eloquently put it “got some mates that have been convicted, yeah so what it's the hand life dealt them, we weren't blessed with the systems TLC, government shoulda tried to help them.”

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