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