Drill is one of the most popular art forms in the country right now.
A sound that has emerged from a series of small, tight-knit collectives – Zone 2 or 67 for example - it has grown to absorb international importance, connecting musicians in London and beyond with counterparts in Chicago, New York, and areas of West Africa. Whether it’s the artful evolution of Headie One or the boundary-less creativity of Skengdo & AM, drill is one of the defining sounds of the UK right now.
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But it’s always faced prejudice. The work of young predominantly Black working class musicians, drill was almost immediately repressed, it’s supposed links to gang culture presenting authorities with a golden chance to push back against voices that depicted the harsh realities that many young Black people face in this country today.
The Met Police combined with YouTube to remove videos of prominent drill tracks, with the London force even recruiting scientists in an attempt to work out exactly what the rappers were trying to say. At times, it became farcical, but the message underneath was clear – to the people in power, drill and violence were closely interlinked.
This message has permeated vast swathes of British culture untouched, and has been repeated ad hoc, often by journalists unaware of the context their words hold. Today – April 23rd – for example the BBC reported on a tragic murder in Hendon, one that ended the life of a promising young man. The perpetrator was jailed, and will serve a minimum prison sentence of 19 years. The report, however, on one of the UK’s biggest news websites placed his interest in rap before any other fact. Indeed, the report’s opening three words reads: “A drill rapper…”
Looking at wider coverage of the case, the language is eerily similar. Everyone from the Yorkshire Evening Post to This Is Local London make prominent use of the word ‘drill’, almost as a smear, a useful – to them – tag for The Sort Of Person they are writing about. It’s a deeply suspicious tactic.
This is far from an isolated case. Earlier this month, even, Sky News reported on the horrific actions of Sahayb Abu by labelling him a “drill-rapping jihadist”, as if an interest in PopSmoke was in any way related to his abhorrent actions. But still, the term is used, and the false resonance authorities have created goes on and on.
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But in truth, it’s completely meaningless. Drill is a harsh but beautiful artform, one where everything from Christianity to survivor’s guilt and mental health issues can be discussed, one that incorporates pan-diasporic identities while sounding resolutely British. Yet the media has transformed the ‘drill’ handle into a synonym for negative stereotypes about young Black men; a lazy catch-all that offers a dog whistle towards pre-existing prejudice.
Ultimately, drill artists talk about violence because young Black people in London and beyond face a violent existence. Gang culture exists because the support systems – meagre though as they were – that had been created for working class youth in this country have been trimmed back to the point of collapse. Drill has stepped in to provide a focal point for expression because it is needed, because it is required.
It’s all eerily similar to the way grime was depicted by the media. Way back when, grime events could be shut down no questions asked by the Met Police under Form 696, and the stigmatising of the genre arguably continues to this day, albeit in more sophisticated and subtle forms. It’s a depressingly cyclical pattern: when young Black people in this country express themselves, and discuss the often traumatic manner in which their lives unfold, those voices are then closed off and shut down.
Perhaps if the underlying issues facing Black communities – and people of colour more generally – were seriously addressed, the media could interact with drill, and the culture surrounding it, in a more meaningful manner. Until then, they should stop using ‘drill’ as shorthand for something much more disturbing.
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Words: Robin Murray
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