Why Are Violent Rap Lyrics Being Blamed for a Crime Wave in London?

A rally organized near Downing Street to call for more action to curb knife crimes, London, June 3, 2018 (Photo by Alex Cavendish for SIPA via AP Images).

LONDON — In late August, this city achieved a grim milestone: The Metropolitan Police announced they were investigating the 100th “violent death” recorded since the start of the year.

Well before that case was recorded, a spate of violent crime in London had already sparked a lot of somber rhetoric and debate. After an especially bloody spring, media on both sides of the Atlantic seized on the fact that London’s murder rate had eclipsed that of New York City for the first time. In truth, that statistic only applied to February and March; by the year’s halfway point, New York had seen 147 homicides compared to 70 in London. But that did not stop U.S. President Donald Trump from invoking the dangers of the British capital in a speech to the National Rifle Association in May, highlighting knife crime in particular. “They don’t have guns. They have knives and instead there’s blood all over the floors of this hospital. They say it’s as bad as a military war zone hospital. Knives, knives, knives, knives,” Trump said, miming a stabbing motion. “London hasn’t been used to that. They’re getting used to it. It’s pretty tough.”

In the U.K., the murder statistics have fueled alarmist media coverage and increased police scrutiny on areas of the city seen as hotbeds for crime. Along with some of the usual, stereotypical suspects — drug gangs, a lack of parental role models — this attention has focused on a relatively new kind of rap music known as “drill.” Born on the south side of Chicago in the early years of this decade, drill spread quickly via YouTube clips and has been embraced by black British boys and young men in London’s poor housing projects. It has thrived in neighborhoods and among young people associated, fairly or not, with hyper-local criminal activity, small-time drug dealing and conflict, often involving violence or threats of violence.

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The name “drill” is intended to carry military connotations, and it befits a genre that is typically monotone, repetitive and shot through with grim social realism; the songs are not especially bright or melodic. There is also a remarkable aesthetic consistency to drill songs and their accompanying music videos. (Because the primary platform for drill is YouTube, the songs and videos are inseparable.) The rappers’ bleak lyrics frequently depict knife crime and other forms of violence, local rivalries, poverty and drug-dealing. The videos are often shot at night, and the rappers they feature are dressed in black and wear masks.

To be sure, these are tropes that have figured in rap music for decades. But where drill differs from 1990s gangster rap is the precise specificity of the violence, and its routine descriptions of real-world incidents and threats to rivals on the streets of London. These descriptions and threats also appear on social media, primarily Snapchat and Instagram.

Rising public concern about drill’s capacity to fuel violence has coincided with a media frenzy and stern words from Britain’s senior police commanders, politicians and judicial officials. In May, when asked about the apparent rise in violent crime, Cressida Dick, London’s police chief, said the problem was partly due to reductions in police resources, but also condemned “lyrics which glamorize violence, serious violence, murder, stabbings.” She dismissed the notion that drill was “just music,” contending instead that such songs have “a terrible effect.”

For all the controversy over drill, little attention has been paid to the lives of the men and boys creating it.

Reflecting this viewpoint, one aspect of the police’s response to the crime wave has been to censor so-called drillers by publicly pressuring YouTube to remove some drill videos. Law enforcement officials have also initiated unprecedented and contentious legal proceedings to forbid rappers from discussing certain topics, using certain words and addressing certain individuals in their lyrics.

Yet despite officials’ apparent desire to curb the purported influence of drill, little attention seems to have been paid to the harsh socioeconomic realities facing the men and boys creating it, and how those realities have been compounded by cuts to public services after years of austerity.

At the same time, it’s difficult to argue that some public concern about drill isn’t justified. There is significant, though by no means complete, overlap between drillers and young people engaged in criminal activity. This makes it difficult for well-meaning proponents of the arts and free expression — those inclined to say that the songs are “just a performance” — to defend everything that the rappers have produced.

In the past two or three years, a staggering number of artists in London’s drill scene have ended up in jail. Others have been involved in violent altercations in which they’ve been stabbed and, in some cases, killed. One South London drill crew, called Moscow17, lost two members in a matter of months this summer: 17-year-old Rhyhiem Barton, known as GB, was shot deadin May, and 23-year-old Sidique Kamara, known as Incognito, was murdered in August; they died on the very same street.

Only a week before Kamara’s killing, 18-year-old Latwaan Griffiths had been stabbed to death nearby. Griffiths rapped under the name SA, for Splash Addict, which is a reference to stabbing. He was a member of the Harlem Spartans, a drill crew based out of a housing project less than a mile away from Moscow17.

After Griffiths’ death, his family issued a public plea for information about the perpetrator and for an end to the violence. “We as a family are broken, we are riddled with heartache, we will never be the same. We want to put Latwaan to rest, but we cannot do that unless you help us with this murder inquiry,” the family’s statement said. “We know that nothing we do collectively as a family or community can bring Latwaan back to life, but what we do know is that his murderer is still out there, and there is nothing stopping YOU from being the next victim of a knife or gun crime.”

‘Like There’s No Way Out’

Drill is an almost exclusively male rap subgenre, and toxic masculinity — manifesting in casual sexism as well as violence — compounds the artists’ troubled home lives and the social problems they encounter. In this context, it’s no surprise that young women from similar backgrounds are often left out of discussions of the issues affecting their brothers and friends. But that doesn’t mean they don’t experience them, too.

Ray BLK, an R&B singer from South London whose real name is Rita Ekwere, has firsthand knowledge of many the issues that inform drill lyrics. She still remembers the horror she felt the first time she saw a gun brandished during an argument at a party, when she was just 14. She can also describe her male peers’ rapid desensitization to this type of violence, and their experience of adolescence as kind of trap — an impression exacerbated by alienation from the state. “You can’t go to a local youth center because they’ve all been closed. You definitely can’t talk to the police,” she says. “A lot of people feel like they’re not going to give you any sort of protection, if you ask for help, and you’ll be ostracized by your community. So you feel like there’s no way out.”

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While the media fixates on violence, the psychological trauma suffered by those growing up in these environments is barely considered. “So many of these young boys have mental health issues and aren’t even aware of it. They don’t know why they act or feel the way they do,” she says. “When you listen to drill music, a lot of the words are very powerful, very dark, and you can hear the pain in the music. As much as they are speaking about violent crimes and drug dealing, they are trying to speak the truth, and using music as a form of catharsis. You’re hearing a 14-year-old rapping about how his family don’t know where he is, because he’s in a trap house somewhere outside of London, sleeping on the floor with 10 crackheads. It is so traumatic, it’s unimaginable.”

Such details, she says, underscore the need for better mental health services for young people. Yet these services are currently in a desperate state, having been gutted by funding cuts in the years since the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition came to power in 2010, with David Cameron as prime minister. According to one study, total spending on youth services has fallen by more than 60 percent in that period.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn 
attend a roundtable meeting to discuss gun and knife crimes, London, April 10, 2018 
(Photo by Stefan Rousseau for Press Association via AP Images).

Schools, youth centers and dedicated youth mental health programs have all suffered. In the South London borough of Lewisham, one English teacher whose students have included multiple aspiring drill rappers says he’s seen good teachers and support workers leave the profession because they were overwhelmed by the challenges facing them. Homework clubs and extracurricular programs like music clubs and group outings to cultural events in central London have been canceled due to cuts in funding. The limited resources that remain have gone toward so-called behavior officers tasked with addressing disciplinary problems and “putting out fires.” Outside of school hours, students are left to fend for themselves on the streets, especially those whose parents, many of whom are in precarious employment situations, work long and difficult hours. . . . Read the rest of this article at worldpoliticsreview.com.

Dan Hancox is a writer based in London who has been published by The Guardian and Observer, VICE, The New York Times and other outlets. His latest book, Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime (Harper Collins), is out now.