The sparse beats and raw lyrics of drill music have served as the soundtrack to an unprecedented surge in knife crime on the streets of London this year — and police are accusing the genre of fuelling the violence.
But defenders of drill, a form of hip hop, argue it is an expression of the nihilistic hopelessness of inner-city life, not a cause of the gang wars that have killed and maimed dozens of young black men this year.
The genre is hugely popular, with millions listening on social media to crews like Moscow17, which has lost two of its members just this year.
Sidique Kamara, better known as “Incognito”, 23, was stabbed to death last week on the same south London street where another crew member was shot dead a few months before.
The group had been trading insults and threats with rival crews through a series of music videos.
The case of Moscow17 and others have led police to order dozens of videos to be taken off the internet.
Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick says drill’s dark lyrics have had the “terrible effect” of glamourising violence, but industry insiders reject this.
“There was crime before drill music came to the UK,” SK, head of the Finesse Foreva record label that is home to major drill artists, told AFP.
“In school we study Shakespeare, he glorifies violence, but you are not going to take an axe and chop someone’s head off,” he said.
Finesse Foreva co-chief TK added that the music had been “scapegoated”, and was distracting from the socio-economic problems that lead to high-risk lifestyles.
‘Prison or the grave’
Drill originated in Chicago in the early 2010s, with lyrics documenting life in the city’s violent neighbourhoods.
The style was soon adopted by young artists in Britain, particularly in the public housing estates of south London.
Social media provided the platform for artists to highlight the challenges and temptations of life on London’s streets, but has also been blamed for escalating tensions between rival crews.
At the recent trial of the 1011 gang — who have more than 10 million views on their YouTube channel — for planning an attack on a rival crew, one member told the court that their violent lyrics were “not really me”, but were instead “what our fans want”.
The trial raised questions over whether young fans from more comfortable backgrounds were egging on artists into destructive behaviour through social media.
“It’s definitely a factor,” said Craig Pinkney, a criminologist and youth worker from University College Birmingham.
“Oftentimes we see the disagreements that are taking place, and then the audience are differentiating who they believe is the most credible person based on viewership, based on the number of likes.”
The gang expert said that culture’s romanticisation of violence was partly to blame, but drill’s young audience may lack the maturity to draw the line between art and reality.
With youth-led social media increasingly driving mainstream culture, Pinkney fears that the problem will only become more widespread.
“Young people know that the industry is prepared to pay for individuals talking about chaos and bloodshed,” he said.
“What they are talking about is going to put them in two places, in prison or the grave.”
‘We are about positivity’
Label moguls TK and SK angrily rejected the accusations.
SK highlighted the refuge that music studios offer, and the contribution that the industry had made to the community, “creating employment for young people”.
“We are about positivity. We empower young people, working 9-5 off our own back and we are making a change, and the government is sat there taking our videos down, pushing buttons. It’s so ridiculous.”
Despite their opposing views on the role of industry, both SK and Pinkney lay the ultimate blame on society’s leaders for allowing problems to fester in inner-city communities.
“Even though (drill) is destructive and perpetuating violence in very tight-knit communities, what (drill artists) are actually saying is that this is a symptom of a deeper problem,” said Pinkney.
Authorities “are scapegoating it to ignore the original problems, which is that there are issues such as poor mental health, poor housing, education, lack of community leadership, lack of policing, lack of corporate responsibility,” he added.
“It needs to be a whole societal change”.