Nearly three years have passed since UK drill music was discovered as the malignant source of Britain’s “knife crime epidemic”. Portrayed as “the knife crime rap” – if a Sunday Times Magazine cover (May, 5 2019) is anything to go by – drill became policed as such, following a long history of racial(ised) criminalisation of Black music genres. Despite the absence of tangible evidence that could link drill music to criminal wrongdoing (see, e.g. here, here and here) and ignoring the protestations of law reform and human rights organisations, leading legal professionals, the expert witnesses they instruct, social scientists and 65 signatories of an open letter— drill is still summoned to stand trial for glorifying violence, glamourising outlaw lifestyles and causing “crime”.
The latest instalment of such unfounded, ill-thought, irresponsible and discriminatory panic-mongering came earlier this week, in the form of a report by Policy Exchange, which recycles moralising platitudes about “gangsterism”, “(black) criminality”, stop and search and “knife crime” to show ‘[h]ow gangs are drawing another generation into a life of violent crime’. Lacking in rigour, (re)citing shaky evidence, using contested terminology carelessly and making wild assumptions, this report is not only deeply flawed. It also peddles injurious falsehoods and fails to uphold high standards of evidence. Posing as a research report, it actually amounts to what a colleague described as: presupposition, police statistics and Google. A timely response is therefore needed and this blog article aims at providing it, focusing on the unsound arguments made about drill music— that liken it to a criminal outfit (which it is not), instead of treating it as an art form (which it actually is).
Gangs, Drill Music and Social Media
In a section entitled The Legitimisation of Gang Culture, this Policy Exchange report uncritically echoes the familiar refrain about how gangs use drill music and social media to celebrate violent crime. This can be true and legal guidance from the CPS and the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy maintain that it is. Alas, the reality is neither as simple as that, nor does it become “reality” because law enforcement institutions tell us so. Before jumping into facile conclusions about how gangs, drill and social media all conspire to plunge society into violence, what “gangs” are officially defined as— tells us a lot about whether they really are as dangerous as they sound. Section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 defines gangs as a group which: (a) ‘consists of at least 3 people’, (b) ‘uses a name, emblem or colour or has any other characteristic that enables its members to be identified by others as a group’, and (c) ‘is associated with a particular area’. Such a definition is too vague to be helpful, other than as a prosecutorial tool for targeting those whose activities are stereotypically associated with “criminality”. In the context of drill music, this means that anyone who raps on camera with at least 3 other people, wearing T-shirts with the drill collective’s name or logo in their neighbourhood, can be identified as a gang member and prosecuted as such. Inferring gang association through appearances in drill videos that circulate on social media is hardly “evidence” and complicated further by the fact that the pose, imagery and performance of “gang lifestyles” have been a staple in various rap subgenres (drill included) since the emergence of gangsta rap in the 1990s.
Doing Violence to Drill
Ignoring the dangers of relying on criminal justice definitions for understanding “crime” is not the only error in this report. Neither is the absence of any criminological approach to “crime”, “knife crime”, “gangs” or “violence”. The report’s author also assumes that one can write confidently about music genres and forms of cultural expression that they are ignorant of, or that such knowledge is not even necessary—when making claims about how dangerous and violent drill music is. Context and nuance become irrelevant, as do the artistic conventions of the music. All that is needed is a court verdict without looking at: how the prosecution’s case was made, what evidence it was based on, whether such evidence is relevant, admissible and has sufficient weight to withstand scrutiny, whether such evidence has significant prejudicial impact but little probative/evidential value, what expert witnesses were relied on, what are they experts of/in, what their credentials/qualifications are, or whether the success of such evidence depends on making an emotive case to the jury by portraying defendants in a negative light, or whether the law itself, expert witnesses for the defence and relevant academic research on “rap on trial” challenge simplistic connections between drill music and violence.
Worse still, the fact that much of what drill music is and does is fictional and performative rather than literal or factual, is grudgingly admitted (albeit sketchily) but not accounted for when interpreting how drill rappers consciously pander to the voyeuristic demand for “digital slumming”/“gangbanging” by staging and embodying, exaggerated, hyperbolic and often fabricated violent personas in search of the material rewards that online infamy promises; even at the expense of commodifying their own stigmatisation. Nor is there any serious reflection on what social conditions make such activity a potential source of income, in a social context that denies people secure employment, decent housing, access to healthcare, equal educational opportunities and fair treatment by the criminal justice system. For the report’s author, it is enough to accuse drill rappers for creating violent content without interrogating the violent context in which such music is made and blaming that perhaps. Besides, there is no such thing as society is there? People are mere individuals who make their own independent choices in ‘self-selected circumstances’ they fully control. Everything else is a distraction or leftist propaganda.
Evidence of Things Not Known
A more charitable reaction to this report might excuse the author for not being an expert in rap culture or Criminology, allowing some margin of error in that regard. Besides, didn’t the report mention the work of Keir Irwin-Rogers, Craig Pinkney and Simon Harding? Aren’t they Criminologists who also write about such issues? Isn’t it enough to just mention three academics, but otherwise ignore a large body of research that buttresses the report’s arguments on stop and search, gangs and youth violence, and knife crime? Isn’t it enough to base an entire report primarily on news media sources, a few government publications and vague allusions to ‘analysis by Policy Exchange’ to advance unreliable, scarcely evidenced claims that are often correlation-causation fallacies of the kind that first-year undergraduate research methods courses caution against? Does it matter that there is no information whatsoever about how ‘key statistics’ were produced to inform us that ‘at least 37% of cases were directly linked to drill music in 2018 and 23% in 2019’? Do we really need to know how such data was collected, how such research was conducted, what methodology was used, what the exact findings were, or whether such research was peer-reviewed? Does it matter that 37% on page 13 becomes 36.5% on page 23? Does it matter that these figures are probably based on cases that relied on rap material as “evidence” during a period (2018-9) when the validity of such “evidence” wasn’t contested by rap experts— like the members of the Prosecuting Rap Expert Network (of which I am part)? Is it significant that drill music is “believed” to incite violence in some pages (53, 58), but is otherwise indiscriminately blamed for violent crime? I can go on, but won’t. It would suffice to say that if there is any evidence of anything in this report, it points to the very opposite of the ‘painstaking research’ that we are promised in an endorsement, penned by none other than Trevor Phillips himself.
The Politics They Hide
None of the above should occasion surprise, knowing as we do that this is a Policy Exchange report after all. That is to say, a report produced by a think tank whose members include: David Goodhart, who staunchly defends ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies, and ‘white self-interest’ and is the charity’s Head of Demography, Immigration & Integration (!), Eric Kaufmann who also advocates for white racial self-interest politics, but does not consider that racist (in a Policy Exchange report, obviously!) and other conservative bigwigs like Charles Moore and Tony Sewell. But make no mistake about it, Policy Exchange is an ‘independent, non-partisan educational charity’. It’s just a coincidence that its reports drip with the kind of right-wingery which considers ‘[t]he real injustice [to be] the disproportionate way young black men are victims of crime, not policing tactics’ (p.7) – can’t it be both? – and complains about the fate of a ‘far-right activist’ who ‘was jailed for branding immigrants and refugees as rapists at a series of marches that were linked to an attack on two Asian men’, compared to those pesky drill rappers who ‘do not receive similar scrutiny and treatment’ (p.54)—despite the discriminatory suppression of their music by the state and its criminal justice institutions. If this scathing blog has made you think that this is all that is problematic with this Policy Exchange report, I promise that I have merely scratched the surface. Read it in full to find out more about how sneakers (Adidas), music (drill) and social media (take your pick) are to blame for violent crime, but a socio-political and cultural context and policies that exclude, marginalise, criminalise and confine aren’t.
Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.
Photos courtesy of author and Mark Angelo Sampan from Pexels