Grime was once Britain’s notorious “problem genre”, making headline news and arousing the suspicion of Scotland Yard and Downing Street as a violent music subculture. Fast-forward a decade and grime is now part of the pop mainstream reaching vast audiences, doing business with top brands, and even having the ear of politicians like Norman Lamb, Matt Hancock, and Jeremy Corbyn. Such is the cachet of grime that the London Mayor intervened to scrap the Metropolitan Police’s 696 Form because it unfairly targeted grime artists and audiences, while also threatening grime’s contribution to the UK’s economy and cultural life. Grime fans greeted the news with enthusiasm, save for a hint of suspicion that this decision would hardly end the criminalisation of future Black British music genres.
Unfortunately, the sceptics won and in the latter part of 2018 a new rap subgenre, drill, replaced grime as a suspect in connection with the rise of violent crime in London. Branded as the ‘demonic’ and ‘nihilistic’ ‘soundtrack to London’s murders’, drill may have succeeded grime as the dangerous sound of the day but it will take a long time before either are pardoned for the crimes that are blamed on them, and even longer to end the stigmatisation of Black music. Only last month, a brawl at Norman Bar in Leeds led Labour Councillor Al Garthwaite to blame grime for the violence that broke out, while a recent report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee acknowledged that ‘it is concerning to hear that prejudices against urban acts persist’. Sadly, none of this is new and it will not go away unless we put a stop to the long history of suspicion towards Black British music genres, and expose the myth of “black criminality” for the racist nonsense that it is.
As my own research on the criminalisation of UK grime and drill shows, the hostile, unfair and often illegitimate and discriminatory police tactics used against such genres tell us more about institutional racism than they protect us from the corrupting influence of drill music. Isolated incidents aside, there is no basis to infer anything but a coincidental link between gang violence and drill music. Yet the negative media coverage and disproportionate police attention that drill receives would make us think otherwise, at the expense of the truth and public safety too. Much as it seems reasonable to believe in the (reli)ability of the press or the police to know the facts and conduct themselves accordingly, reality suggests otherwise.
Not only is there no evidence to link drill to gang activity, but there is no concrete evidence of the link between knife crime and gang membership either. The Home Office, the Met Police Chief, and the Crown Court, however, think otherwise insisting that drill is to blame for London’s wave of violent crime. As a result, they staunchly defend the use of more, and often “suspicionless”, stop and search, Criminal Behaviour Orders, gang injunctions and suspended prison sentences against drill artists despite the fact that these responses are proven to be disproportionate, illegitimate, discriminatory, unjust as well as unjustified and ineffective too. Embarrassing though this fact is, it rarely discussed beyond criminological circles, evidence briefings, human rights organisations, campaign groups, youth violence commissions and academic researchers whose advice is seldom heeded, and much less sought-after, if it does not support punitive and populist responses that are unhelpful as they are misleading.
This is not to deny or condone the violence of some, but not all, drill lyrics but to think beyond stereotypes and put things into perspective. Drill music did not invent the violence it broadcasts, nor did it produce the social environment where such violence flourishes. As the Youth Violence Commission’s interim report reminds us, ‘childhood trauma, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, inadequate state provision, deficient parental support, poverty and social inequality’ impact on youth violence more than drill’s violent content. Otherwise my students and I, avid drill listeners as we are, should be rampaging through the university campus, blinded by the music’s siren song.
What makes drill so dangerous and violent, therefore, has more to do with prejudicial assumptions about the nature of the music, its audience, and its alleged relationship to criminality than it does with its actual role in causing serious violence. To make matters worse, singling out drill as the most potent source of violence that plagues British society underplays much of the violence we permit in other spheres of social life from patterns of poverty, inequality and social exclusion, and racial injustice, to toxic political rhetoric, the normalisation of the far-right, and ‘hostile environment’ policies. Yet none of those social harms are thought to cause crime nor are they blamed for it, letting drill take the hit instead with front-page headlines that describe it as ‘the knife crime rap’.
As the frenzy against drill refuses to die down, there is little hope of thinking about it as anything other than a social ill, unless our attention shifts to the real causes of violent crime. But this may have to wait until we make sure that our fellow citizens do not grow up in a social environment of ‘broken hearts, broken phones’ as ‘diligent yutes from broken homes’, that drill rappers Skengdo and AM educate us about through their music.
Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and the 2018 British Society of Criminology Blogger of the Year for his article on the policing of UK drill music. In September 2019, he will be joining the University of Brighton as a Lecturer in Criminology. This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.