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).