The UK’s most con­tro­ver­sial genre feels the long arm of the law in an alarm­ing bat­tle for artis­tic self-ex­pres­sion.

Q (UK) - - Contents -

To­ward the end of Rea­gan­ism, N.W.A re­leased an in­cen­di­ary and wildly suc­cess­ful song called Fuck Tha Po­lice. This con­cerned some peo­ple, be­cause the po­lice had never both­ered them, and a strict le­gal sys­tem had al­ways pre­sented neat moral dis­tinc­tions. They deemed out­rage at state racism to be gra­tu­itous. They protested: pick­eted shows, pe­ti­tioned ra­dio sta­tions, penned op-eds and let­ters-page screeds about the de­struc­tive force of rap. Not only did it de­base so­ci­ety, they ar­gued, but it be­trayed its own com­mu­nity – mostly black folk who’d prob­a­bly be bet­ter off in me­nial jobs. Labour or the ser­vice in­dus­try, per­haps. Imag­ine for a sec­ond that N.W.A had sighed in cor­dial agree­ment, Dr. Dre aban­doned hip-hop and no­body talked about guns or Comp­ton again. Fur­ther down the line, Mar­shall Mathers re­mained a lo­cal hero with a cult fol­low­ing in Detroit and Ken­drick La­mar wasn’t in­spired to take up the man­tle. The UK has just en­tered an era as ab­surd as that fan­tasy sug­gests. As of last month, lyri­cists con­sid­ered threat­en­ing can now face le­gal ejec­tion from the UK drill scene,

a con­tro­ver­sial rap genre trans­planted from Chicago. It’s un­der­stand­able, in a way, that out­siders prone to tabloid alarmism might rally for such cen­sor­ship. Youth cul­ture is there to un­set­tle. But it’s an ar­gu­ment too rhetor­i­cally ex­hausted to have se­duced the cap­i­tal’s cen­tral po­lice force. The un­prece­dented move came when the Met – hardly known for re­spect­ing black Bri­tish mu­sic – re­ceived a judge’s back­ing to ban five MCs from record­ing or per­form­ing with­out po­lice per­mis­sion. The group tar­geted is 1011, who are mostly teenagers. For the stretched po­lice force, separat­ing real threats from lyri­cal swag­ger is com­plex work. But 1011’ s case war­ranted ac­tion: they’d been found one night with deadly weapons, al­legedly en route to con­front ri­val group 12 World. (In court, they ad­mit­ted to con­spir­acy to com­mit vi­o­lent dis­or­der.) As well as jail time, they re­ceived three-year re­stric­tions on mu­sic­mak­ing – no lyrics about vi­o­lence or death – that ef­fec­tively black­list drill’s lin­gua franca. For many drill artists, mu­sic and foot­ball are the only con­ceiv­able al­ter­na­tives to a life on the streets that repli­cates their par­ents’ strug­gle. Their chilly, omi­nous mu­sic re­flects the iso­la­tion of work­ing-class ex­is­tence in fast-gen­tri­fy­ing Lon­don. As such, it can be star­tling. It some­times de­scribes real vi­o­lence. Its most vo­cal fans per­ceive le­gal en­tan­gle­ments to con­fer au­then­tic­ity on artists. For highly im­age-con­scious MCs, per­for­ma­tive lyri­cal threats may, given a vast au­di­ence, es­ca­late triv­ial ri­val­ries and lead to avoid­able vi­o­lence. Those who de­fend drill mu­sic, even in the rare in­stances when it over­laps gang cul­ture, do not dis­re­gard the hor­ror of knife crime and dy­ing boys. It’s de­press­ing to ob­serve Lon­don rife with such dire so­cial con­di­tions that, to its sharpest mu­si­cal tal­ents, the most ob­vi­ous and ur­gent use of cre­ative en­ergy is to vent vi­o­lent fan­tasies and pro­voke other dis­en­fran­chised artists. But the Met works in these com­mu­ni­ties – they have wit­nessed ex­treme poverty, vis­ited strait­ened homes. They know bet­ter than to squeeze from their lives black mu­sic and its prom­ise of re­demp­tion. The sad irony is that the most volatile artists are the ones who stand to gain most from record­ing. Drill is a re­lease valve and a means of es­cape – psy­cho­log­i­cally and, with the even­tual spoils, phys­i­cally. Con­ser­va­tives can cheer the gut­ting of lo­cal funds while loudly con­demn­ing those com­mu­ni­ties’ in­flam­ma­tory en­ergy, if they have the gall. But for those who be­lieve in­sur­rec­tion to be the right of the dis­pos­sessed, it is sense­less and in­hu­mane to write such a po­si­tion into law.

For many drill artists, mu­sic and foot­ball are the only con­ceiv­able al­ter­na­tives to a life on the streets.

“Un­prece­dented”: the five mem­bers of drill group 1011, who were hit by the re­stric­tions.

Fight­ing the power: N.W.A, who at­tracted out­rage with their 1988 song Fuck Tha Po­lice from de­but al­bum Straight Outta Comp­ton (right).

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