Skengdo & AM

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).


  1. damon

    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.

  2. Cable Strada

    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.

  3. damon

    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.

  4. damon

    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.

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