This essay, on the clampdown on drill music, was my Observer column this week. It was published 10 February 2019, under the headline ‘Since when was it a police job to impose sanctions on drill musicians?’
The authorities ban musicians from playing without official approval. The police prevent them from performing a song deemed unacceptable. The courts threaten to imprison them when they do play it. All this not in Russia or Iran but in Britain.
Last month, two drill musicians, Skengdo and AM from the Brixton group 410, were given nine-month suspended sentences. Their crime? Performing their song Attempted 1.0 at a gig in December. In so doing, they breached a court injunction issued in August. It was, producer and writer Ian McQuaid observed, ‘a watershed moment for the censorship of culture’.
Drill is a form of rap that emerged in Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s and subsequently found a home in south London, too. Where hip-hop has become mainstream and gentrified, drill is raw and nihilistic, its lyrics overflowing with anger and violence.
For many in authority, the violence of the music is inseparable from gang violence. Certainly, some drill artists have been involved not just in gangs but in murderous acts, including the killing of 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall in south London. Supporters of drill argue that the lyrics simply reflect the reality of life in many urban communities.
There is a long history of moral panics about music. From jazz to rock’n’roll to punk to hip-hop, popular music has often been portrayed as morally depraved. But while previously records have been banned and clubs shut down, Skengdo and AM are the first musicians in Britain to have received prison sentences (albeit suspended) for playing a particular song.
According to Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, drill music is about ‘glamorising serious violence’, with lyrics that describe ‘stabbings in great detail, joy and excitement’.
Glamorising violence is not, however, a criminal offence. If it were, everything from American Psycho to Zulu could be banned.
One can have a moral debate about how musicians should deal with the issue of violence. It’s not, though, the job of the police to set the terms of that debate, nor to frame our moral attitudes. The police claim also that drill ‘incites’ violence. Incitement to violence is illegal in this country. Neither Skengdo nor AM has been charged under those laws. Instead, the Met has creatively redefined what it means legally to incite. Last year, Met commander Jim Stokley told the Times that ‘new measures would mean officers no longer needed to prove that videos and social media posts were linked to specific acts of violence to secure a conviction for incitement to violence’.
In other words, you can be guilty of incitement even if you haven’t incited a specific violent act. The injunction against Skengdo and AM forbids them from mentioning death, injury or rival crews in their songs. Other groups, such as 1011, have been served with similar injunctions.
The police clampdown reveals the increasing use of administrative sanctions as a means of bypassing the judicial process. The injunctions against Skengdo and AM were imposed through a criminal behaviour order (CBO), the updated version of the antisocial behaviour orders, or Asbos, introduced in 1998 by Tony Blair’s Labour government. Skengdo and AM were served with an injunction without having been convicted of a crime. Breaking the injunction is a criminal offence. They’ve been criminalised for making violent music without having been convicted of any offence of violence.
Gang violence is an important and fraught issue, especially in London. Few would deny that music-driven clashes in the drill world often relate to real-life conflict. But the roots of gang violence are complex, and afford no easy solutions. There is no evidence that drill music causes gang violence. The authorities, though, want to be seen to be doing something. So they’ve turned drill musicians into scapegoats and criminalised music in a policy low in effectiveness but high in visibility.
The attempt by the police to redefine ‘incitement’ and the willingness of the courts to potentially imprison musicians for performing ‘unacceptable’ songs are assaults on basic liberties. Music writers, such as Dan Hancox, and free speech organisations, including Index on Censorship, have raised the alarm. Yet there is a striking lack of wider concern about these trends.
Many on the left have become so supportive of censorship that they barely notice. Many on the right who often holler about free speech violations remain silent about the censorship of marginalised black musicians. And so the police and courts continue to hack away at our liberties.
The photo is of Skengo & AM (photographer unknown).
I have to admit that this wider issue agitates and upsets me more than it should maybe.
For years I’ve been looking to see some proper analysis of the reality of the black youth subculture that occupies quite a lot of our public consciousness. Hardly a month goes by when you won’t hear it being discussed on the radio talk shows, or in the newspapers, as the body count for young people killed in the gang wars, starts going up again as a new year comes round.
And I read and listen in vain. No one is getting it right and describing what’s going on properly.
And more importantly, why.
I’ve heard these defences of “free expression” and for the police and authorities to keep their noses out of music and youth culture for years now. But these young black boys are turning to this nihilism for a reason, and to just say that the music is a reflection of their lives, is a cop-out in my opinion.
Why has a generation of black English boys had their heads turned towards this sub-culture?
MP Diane Abbott wouldn’t left her son go to a local Hackney school because she feared he would have bad influences there. I think she made up another excuse that blamed the schools and the teachers, but I suspect that she didn’t want her son to become one of these Grime or Drill boys.
Following the links in Kenan’s article, you come to this Guardian page showing two videos.
I hope people have watched these kinds of videos, so that they really know what they’re talking about when they describe this as just another youth music scene.
My own conclusion is, that this kind of music and subculture is very mentally damaging to the young black kids who get sucked into it’s world of the street and everything that goes with that.
I see that some of the boys at my old school in Croydon even dress and act like they are part of this subculture.
All wearing hoodie jackets and talking the street patois.
One of the few people I really respect on this wider subject, is the black American commentator John McWhorter.
Nearly 20 years ago now, he wrote a book called “Losing the Race – Self-Sabotage in Black America”.
And it’s those two words “Self-Sabotage” that I think are key.
These boys into this Grime and Drill culture are sabotaging themselves. It’s not white people and the racist society doing it to them. They seek it out because (to use another of John McWhorter’s great terms), they seek “Therapeutic Alienation”. That means what it basically sounds like.
These black boys who gravitate to this street culture, go looking for the authenticity and status that making a name in this culture can confer on them.
Not so different psychologically to what many of the football hooligans were looking for when they caused violence around football matches for years. But for these black youth it’s more serious, as they can’t just go home and back to normal lives like most of the hooligans did for the rest of the week.
Those who get involved in the post code wars and the drugs gangs, get completely trapped and it defines their whole lives. Many can’t even switch to “speaking normally” when they want to get a job.
If these young men can’t make it in London, then they can’t make it anywhere. Or at least anywhere as a black minority in a mostly white country. They have every opportunity given to them, but are rejecting it and making themselves so different to wider society, that they become misfits.
I’m in Cape Town and there are murders every day down in the Cape Flats townships.
By contrast, our boys are living in the middle of a thriving first world city, but they like to make out that they’re living in a heartless ghetto.
‘No one is more alive than I to the need to buttress the forces of virtue against the unprincipled elements of the jungle.’ That was the BBC’s Controller of Sound talking about jazz in 1935. There’s nothing new in the idea of music as creating depravity. (And the use of the word ‘jungle’ was undoubtedly deliberate – there’s a long history of playing on racist tropes when people make this argument). I’d be interested, though, in hearing how criminalizing black youth – and convicting them for not having committed any offence – saves them from ‘nihilism’.
I’m having WiFi problems in these Addis Ababa cafes I’m using, so I’m not sure if my last reply here went through or just wasn’t given approval.
Jazz is an artistic and cultural high point of human creativity.
I know you can’t measure the worth all music and art so accurately, but this Grime and Drill stuff is much more than music, it’s a negative and dangerous part of murderous street culture.
It’s obviously a part of what changes these really difficult teenagers and “lost” young black men from the sweet young children they were only a few years before.
At eight years old they’re just regular little primary school kids and at sixteen they have a criminal and anti-social mindset and are just a total pain for anyone who comes into contact with them.
All teenagers can have issues as they transition into adulthood, but what happens with this “Roads culture” is completely at a different level of negativity.
I’d ask people who (in my opinion) drag their feet over this, what is it then which creates this almost entirely “alien” and alienated youth subculture?
People who just pass it off as just youthful inventiveness and the normal pushing of boundaries, are more or less being appeasers to this modern urban blight.
So I’d ask, where has this subculture come from?
What’s with the “Multicultural London English” and is it a problem or just a natural progression of language? If you can only speak “MLE” (like Ali G) then surely you have disadvantaged yourself.
The (other) Guardian writers keep blaming wider society and white people in general for this, but I just can’t agree.
You miss my point. I happen to agree with you aesthetically about jazz. But 80 years ago jazz was perceived by the authorities in the same way as drill is now. The issue is not about aesthetics but about the criminalization of music. You write that drill is ‘obviously a part of what changes these really difficult teenagers and “lost” young black men from the sweet young children they were only a few years before’. There is nothing ‘obvious’ about it at all, any more than there was anything ‘obvious’ about the perception of jazz as ‘depraved’. It’s an assertion, for which you have provided no substance. And you still have not answered my question about how criminalizing black youth – and convicting them for not having committed any offence – saves them from ‘nihilism’.
Finally, I have not ‘not approved’ any of your comments. So, yes, it may well be ‘wifi problems in Addis Ababa cafes’.
The attempted gagging of these BAME youth is genuine censorship of genuine free speech and another example of how nothing will change in this country until its demographics have been permamently and progressively altered by mass immigration. Whites will never willingly give up their white privilege or dismantle the hegemonic white supremacist structures that systemically oppress women, BAME communities, LGBTQ folk and others. Pond-life like Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary know this, which is why Salvini is trying to ethnically cleanse the BAME communities now established in Italy and why Orban is refusing to let BAME communities become established in Hungary (apart from the historically oppressed Roma community, which is politically weak and which he can’t at present attack as he and his party no doubt wish to).
Your other article in the Observer provides more proof that open borders are the quickest way to cleanse the United Kingdom of its white-supremacist filthiness and promote genuine free speech (i.e., speech that advances progressive causes rather than reactionary and crypto-fascist causes):
“Think you are British? Not if the Home Office says you’re not”
I don’t think I’m “British” and would be disgusted if anyone regarded that as something I should aspire to be. I think I’m a Marxist, a progressive, an internationalist and a human being with dreams of genuine freedom and genuine advancement of humanity. To achieve that, we must smash white supremacism and the fetishization of so-called Enlightenment values, such as the “free speech” you misguidedly support for the likes of Katie Hopkins (white), Peter Hitchens (white), Tommy Robinson (white), Julie Bindel (white) and other Islamophobes, racists, transphobes and assorted pond-life.
So, a ‘Marxist’ who sees ‘good’ and ‘bad’ primarily in racial categories. And a ‘Marxist’ who seems not to understand that giving the state greater powers of censorship will inevitably damage the cause of those fighting for social justice. (Yes, we’ve had this argument many times before, but you do keep making the same point again and again). Little wonder, again as I’ve observed before, that Marx wrote ‘If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist’.
Please tell how what I say is different from what Lenin would have said. You can’t (except to say that he would have expressed the same ideas with greater eloquence and intelligence.) Lenin did not believe in giving the enemies of progress any opportunity to spread their poison and retard or reverse humanity’s ascent.
So who is a better guide to Marxism in praxis: a) Lenin, the greatest and most successful revolutionary in history; b) Kenan Malik, a historian, theorizer and rhetorician who cannot point to any successful implementation of his ideas in the real world?
We know where “free speech” leads: to Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro and Orban. That is why the enemies of progress must not be allowed to spread their poison. What Lenin taught at the beginning of the twentieth century is what I repeat at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
I am happy for you to live in your Leninist fantasy. It’s funny, though, how every time I ask you a question that you can’t answer, you just go back to your fantasy. ‘Don’t you recognize that if you give the state more powers to censor, it will inevitably be used against those fighting for social justice?’ ‘All you need to know is that Kenan Malik is no Vladimir Lenin’. ‘France and Germany have the toughest censorship laws in Europe. Have they stopped the rise of the far right?’ ‘I don’t care. But Lenin is a better guide to Marxism’. ‘Is it really free speech that have brought Trump, Salvini etc to power? Or is it globalization, austerity, the marginalization of working class communities, the failure of the left to defend working class people, the willingness of mainstream politicians to parrot far right-right arguments about immigration, etc?’. ‘Who cares? All I know is that what I say is no different from what Lenin would have said’.
Well, enjoy your fantasy. One more question, though: Why is that Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban (not to forget Putin, Erdogan, Mohammed bin Salman, etc) all have views about free speech that parallel yours and are the opposite of what I believe? ‘Enemies of progress’? Funny how they’re all authoritarian crushers of free speech.
I’ve read that some people blame the lack of adult authority and vision for the future, being a cause of sections of youth turning to destructive nihilism like we saw in the 2011 riots and also with young Muslims getting involved with religious fundamentalism. And here we have an example at an attempt at least, for adult society to take a lead and try to show some boundaries to these impressionable and misguided young people.
But it’s getting criticised for doing that.
You can’t really have it both ways. The situation with this nihilistic black street culture is greatly in need of some sober adult intervention. The media have failed, as is evident if you just listen to it being discussed.
All you’ll hear is criticisms of the state and wider society for failing these young people, and when it’s discussed on the radio, what you’ll hear is mostly former gang members ringing in and strongly suggesting that it’s they who have the solutions and that they just need to be given lots of money to set up their programmes.
Because they, as former gang members, have both the knowledge “and the status” to be able to engage with these young people.
Both approaches are wrong in my opinion, but being the kind of country that we are, we can not actually do what would be required to try lessen the damage done by this street subculture.
We’re too weak and conflicted to even properly identify what’s going on and would also be unwilling I think to face up to some of the conclusions we might come to.
The problem is primarily a psychological one I believe. And exists because a percentage of the black population find it difficult to come to terms with being an ethnic minority in a largely white society.
It’s one drawback of having a multicultural society.
I’ve heard it being said on a “ Black Issues” London radio show, that many black boys were suffering from “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”.
Which means what it sounds like also. And who without realising it or meaning it maybe, are saying that it’s really hard for black people to even live in England. Because it’s just so white.
Here’s an example of one psychologically damaged individual. An 18 year old black kid has just been sent to prison for robbing people on trains in south London. He’d put on a mask and just threaten people with a knife.
And he’s from my borough of Croydon, but he comes from Kenley, which is in the leafy middle class suburban part down past Purley. What has made a kid from the middle class suburbs turn so against the wider society that he wants to terrorise ordinary people on trains like that? It’s not just criminal, it’s a psychological problem.
He should have had proper adult intervention when he started showing signs that he was slipping into this extremist subculture, several years ago when he was still at school.
But as a society, we’re too weak and unwilling to do what we need to do.
To show kids like that the right way to live and tell them what’s not acceptable also.
The free speech angle here is a side issue I’d say.
Again – in what way is criminalizing black youth (and convicting them for not having committed any offence) an expression of ‘sober adult intervention’?
Would you call prosecuting members of National Action as “criminalising white youth”?
I don’t fully trust the police’s or the government’s judgement in these kinds of matters, but if they don’t “police” – who can? Certainly not ordinary citizens, when faced with organised criminality and hooliganism. It’s only the police that can face down what menaces society. Unless we go down the road of vigilantism like they did in Northern Ireland.
You were very aware of the dangers of the white racists when you were involved with ELWAR Kenan.
I don’t know if just getting older and more established has meant you don’t notice things at street level so much anymore, but how are this lot (The Woolwich Boys gang) not comparable (at least) to what used to happen when Asian people were being harassed and targeted in Newham etc?
Maybe you don’t see it as a problem and only see young people hanging out and making popular videos to put up on YouTube.
But if you type “Woolwich Boys” into Google, you’ll read something more sinister about them.
They rioted in 2011 as well.
Plus, according to this film, some of them were crossing over into Islamic extremism too.
The classic pattern, of nominally Muslim street gang members and drug dealers, “turning over a new leaf” and getting religion – in a negative way.
“Woolwich Boys – From Gang’s to Religion”
I think the “Drill Heads” need to be deradicalised, just like the 19 year old jihadi bride from Tower Hamlets does. And telling them to stop posting these violent videos which cause actual harm … is a start.
But any better ideas are always sought and carefully listened to.
So, members of National Action were imprisoned for performing a song? Must have missed that.
You’re back on this track, I see… I’m quite happy to accept that you’re young and anti-establishment and an expert on street culture. But, as I observed earlier in this thread, don’t assume that anyone who disagrees with you does so only because they’re not so streetwise as you.
If they physically harass or attack people, they should be deal with. But ‘making popular videos to put up on YouTube’ is, thankfully, not in itself, a criminal offence (not yet, anyway).
Thanks for the advice, but I don’t need to Google. I was writing about the Woolwich Boys (and about the conflicts between African-Caribbean and Somali gangs) more than a decade ago. And if you were to pick up From Fatwa to Jihad, or go back over my writing about would-be Western jihadis, you would find that I’ve been talking about jihadi groups being like gangs, and often evolving out of gangs, for a long time.
That just shows how meaningless the terms ‘radicalisation’ and ‘deradicalisation’ have become. A little reading about some of the problems in the way we think about radicalisation.
This is an example of what I was talking about when I said the country was weak and couldn’t even identify what the problems are around an issue like this.
“David Lammy on why there’s nothing scary about a black man in a hoodie
Distrust of black men in hoodies is endemic in the UK. A new campaign aims to challenge these views and make visible the individuals underneath”
So it’s your fault if you find groups of hoodie youths potentially intimidating.
So, black people are responsible if people have an irrational fear about them? Would you say that about all forms of racism?
I wouldn’t put it the way you have at all.
The hoodie can be an intimidating piece of clothing. It’s used routinely as a way of both sending body language signals, to hiding the wearers identity.
If you look at some of the photos the police have released to try to apprehend a dozen white Millwall and Everton football hooligans who were involved in a nasty fight a few weeks ago, you’ll see that many of them have pulled up their hoods in an attempt to deter facial recognition.
If you don’t know about this aspect of street culture, then I’d wonder if you know much about living our big cities at all.
A person who doesn’t have much of a clue about the street culture and staying safe in an urban environment, would claim not to even know what these “body language signals” might be.
Which is a bit like that judge who once asked “who are The Beetles?”
This lack of recognition of actually existing cultural reality is shown up in our sectarian arguments over this wider issue. The police are castigated for being racists, because they take cues about dress and body language into their decisions about how to police urban streets.
They have so much contact with the street culture adhering youth, that they work on hunches that are based on lived experience. As do many others of us who live in these environments.
David Lammy is being totally disingenuous when he criticises regular people for being a bit afraid of the street culture. It’s like he’s saying “Black people like wearing hoods – deal with it”.
It’s striking that in defending the idea that one should fear any black person wearing a hoodie, the example you use is of – white people wearing hoodies. We should not assume that all football fans are hooligans just because some are. We should not assume that every white person wearing a hoodie is a hooligan just because some white people wearing hoodies are. And we should not assume all black people wearing hoodies are a threat just because some black people wearing hoodies are violent gang members. To make such unwarranted assumptions about all people within a group is one aspect of racism.
Finally, you may be an expert on urban street culture, on hoodies and on drill. But that does not mean that anyone who does not agree you does so because they ‘don’t have much of a clue about the street culture and staying safe in an urban environment’. That suggests that you don’t have much of argument and so are forced instead into ad hominem critiques.
I do find it very hypocritical for those you play with racial stereotypes, to then come across all offended when the tables are reversed. David Lammy, Simon Woolley, Lee Jasper, Joseph Harker have all played on the stereotype of the white racist “skinhead”.
In Joseph Harker’s case it was seeing white “white van man” with an English flag on the van.
But the winner of the most despicable race bating prize had to go to Simon Woolley and “Operation Black Vote” when they dredged up some nonexistent 1970s skinhead to stoke up fears of those voting for Brexit. For them, middle aged white baldy blokes are like the skinheads.
I wonder how crusaders for ‘free speech’ react to the case of Alison Chabloz, convicted this week for writing and performing songs since held to have been ‘grossly offensive’?
‘Crusaders for free speech’ would (I hope) respond that her songs were morally despicable but should not be legally banned. I’ve made this point many times.
A general reply to Kenan, as the “reply” button isn’t appearing under the most recent replies you did.
I’m not young and streetwise by the way. More middle aged and alienated by the street culture that does “seem” to have antagonist racial or “racialist” edges too it. Just not explicit. In the way that a hooded person standing behind you as you draw money out of a cashpoint on the street, isn’t explicitly harassing you, but perhaps (justifiably) makes you very aware of their presence. I’m surprised you seem to think that a hood is no more than fashion. It’s at least a fashion statement, and what that statement is, is ambiguous. That’s why it’s popular.
It’s also a material way of hiding your identity, so popular with people with criminal mindsets.
It’s copied by young people following the fashion ….. as coming across as ambiguously or possibly criminal, is part of the fun of general youth street culture.
You and David Lammy seem to be saying we should always give these people the benefit of the doubt. And if we do get mugged or attacked, to just chalk it down as bad luck or misfortune that we allowed a “wrong’un” to get in too close before we took evasive action – like crossing the road, or not getting your phone out on the bus etc.
I don’t want to be on the same side as people like Julia Hartley Brewer in the sectarian culture wars, but it was her tweet about Lammy’s Guardian piece that I agreed with most, when she asked him to consider the views of all the people who had commented on his article on his own twitter feed. They were nearly all disagreeing with him – because of their lived experiences. That would be like telling you in the 1970s, not to fear the skinheads when you walk past them or they get on your bus. “Because they’re not all bad.”
I don’t disagree that you’ve done some strong analysis of how some youths have been drifting into Islamic extremism. But I still have yet to read (anywhere) any decent analysis of what has brought about this heinous “Roads” gang culture. Drugs and the distribution of drugs obviously. That kind of criminality breeds it’s own subculture.
Mixing that with prison culture too and that of general machismo and the culture of being street tough and having “a name” has bred local street cultures back since the Highwaymen and the 19th century.
But I’m interested to know the specifics of this black street culture. Was it inevitable, given that you had racial minorities moving in to a racist white country like post colonial Britain?
We’d already seen what had happened in American cities after the great migrations from the south.
It seems to happen everywhere else too. France has it, Germany has it to a lesser degree.
They’re even having some problems in Australia with recently arrived African youths from South Sudan.
Just a point on football hooligans quickly. You can spot the hooligans at at fifty yards. They stand out like a sore thumb. You always could and it’s even more obvious today. It’s the body language they give off.
Though what exactly those body language signals are, isn’t so easy to spell out in writing.
It’s the police’s job to decipher the good lads from the bad ones and I’m afraid they have to go on these instincts when they first lay eyes on people, otherwise they would be totally ineffective.
So if you deliberately go out and assume the airs of someone involved in the street culture, then you can’t complain too bitterly if you get “policed” by the forces of the law. They’re just checking you out because you are deliberately giving off coded street signals.
I mentioned on here before about the book on the subject in the USA, called “Code of the Street – Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City”
I think the police really are too plodding and clumsy to be at the forefront of deciding on and trying to ban or clamp down on “cultural activity” ……. but until some other people take the lead and make a first step of analysing the situation that we are facing, then I’m not going to protest too loudly.
The police in Croydon, for a couple of years I think, we’re banning a particular black music event from a club down there. Once a month or so, this club had wanted to put on a “Grime” night or something, and the police objected.
Because from their EXPERIENCE, it attracted these groups of black youths from all over London who would travel down to Croydon on public transport, and they were clashing with each other both at the event and coming and going from it. Like in “The Warriors” film from the 70s.
So just protesting the banning order isn’t good enough imo.
What were the police supposed to do, and why should regular people have to put up with these groups of racially alienated youths getting on the same trains and buses as them that evening?
Last thing on the hoodie. Everyone knows it’s got ambiguous meaning and significance.
PS, have yet to see any signs of our alienated youth culture here in Ethiopia.
If you’ve committed a crime then certainly ‘you can’t complain if you get “policed” by the forces of the law’. But to ‘assume the airs of someone involved in the street culture’ is not a crime and you most certainly should not be ‘policed’ for it.
You began this thread by insisting that drill is ‘mentally damaging to the young black kids’ and is ‘obviously’ responsible for gang culture and so it is right to criminalizing drill musicians. You still haven’t provided any evidence for your assertions.
What I’m saying is that just because some black people in hoodies may be in gangs, that’s not licence to treat any black man in a hoodie as a potential criminal. Some people claim that because some paedophiles are gay, so we should see all gays as potential threats to children and act accordingly. Would you accept that view? If not, in what way is it different from your claim about black men in hoodies? To make assumptions about all members of a certain group because some members of that group act in a particular fashion is, as I’ve already observed, one aspect of bigotry.