Stop Blaming Drill for Making People Kill

UK Drill music finds itself accused again of inspiring violent crime in Britain’s major cities. A closer look at the most recent source behind such claims, however, tells a different story

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Lambros Fatsis is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (with Melayna Lamb). In 2018, he won the first-ever ‘British Society of Criminology Blogger of the Year Award’ and recently won an Outstanding Research & Enterprise Impact Award for his work on the criminalisation of drill music.

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.

Contact

Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

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

A young artist’s perspective on criminal issues within the community

Young artist DG has created a music video for his single – Trapped – showing his perspective on gang violence, drug misuse and other issues.

DG is a young, upcoming rapper, from South Manchester, with aspirations for a career within the music industry. He produces tracks, sharing his point of view on criminal issues in the community, at Gorse Hill Studios, as a part of the Alternative Creative Education program.

Watch DG – Trapped (Official Music Video)

During lockdown, creative projects were a way to take your mind off the situation and turn a waste of time into a productive activity. I wanted to pursue my passion for music and created lyrical content relevant to many of the criminal issues within the community. The release – Trapped – uses the slang term ‘trap’ as both a reference to the street drug trade, and a metaphor for the difficulty of removing one from such a situation.

Currently studying at Gorse Hill Studios, as a part of the Alternative Creative Education program, I was able to record and produce the track along with working on my Silver Arts award (and other AQA awards,) which has led me to interview many well-known rappers within this style of music. Gorse Hill Studios has also allowed me to make use of the film equipment, therefore creating a new music video for the release.  

Watch DG – Trapped (Official Music Video)

Having recently researched the statistics on relevant issues, such as knife crime consistency, drug misuse on the streets, gang violence and other topics, I felt it was important to create a piece of content to share a voice on this which often goes unheard: a point of view on the severity of criminal issues to help create an understanding, from a first person perspective, of the impact in the community. Being a young person from such a background, the lyrics give a first-hand account and show contrast between the minds of those who are ‘trapped’ in this cycle of criminal activity, and the people who then must face the consequences. I wanted to use this blog article as a vehicle for speaking about the meaning behind some of the lyrical content, and shine light on the context behind the song.

I focused on common issues such as the process of ‘county lines’, explaining in the song that “out on the roads” is anything but fun, and how my mum is on the phone, referring to the conversation as “where’s her son?”

I thought about how the ‘streets’ have included me as a part of their team and have showed more care to me than many other groups within society. I understand that their intention may not have been in my favour, however at the time, I felt as if I had no one else. I say in the song, “all it is now is me and my team” to show that there was once some sort of association with a different group of people (my family), whereas now, it’s just myself and those part of the ‘team’.

I go on to say how “I wish life is a dream”, along with “late nights got me shotting to the fiends”. I have used the word ‘wish’ to create an image of how strongly I feel about not wanting to be a part of the activity. As the “late nights” are what is making me do these things, I have used the word ‘dream’ to refer to what I wish it was instead.

I also say, “I be on top with all of my G’s”, meaning that I have the upper hand with my G’s (my team) as opposed to before when I was on my own. I believe that this is a reason why so much of the young population feel the need to engage in this criminal activity, as it makes us feel powerful and that there is another ‘better’ way of life. I go on to say that I’m “living lavish, life so sweet”, showing the benefit of being a part of such a group, also backing up my previous statement.

Finally, the last line of the last verse concludes the meaning of the song and the main reason I made it. I state that I am “stuck in these streets’, as I cannot see myself going back to my prior lifestyle, and “that’s why they call it trap”. This is a metaphor, using the word ‘trap’ to show not just the lifestyle of one in this situation, but how it takes over your mind until you no longer want to go back.

I have written this piece to emphasize the meaning and context of the song, giving insight into the minds of those who take part in this cycle of criminal activity, for a related audience that may not have the understanding of why the young population take part in the criminal activity they do.

The track is available to stream on Spotify or Soundcloud, along with a music video on YouTube.

Contact

DG

Email: 0161.dg@gmail.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DG3215

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCewiFEdZoQ71cKN9SZ5Qs6A

Images: Courtesy of author

Policing Black Culture One Beat at a Time

As debates on youth violence in London soar, emotions run high over a problem that is often blamed on Black music subcultures rather than on social and racial injustice, often perpetrated by the police. This article argues that Black British music genres are unfairly targeted as the prime suspects of youth violence, and discusses the role of the police in contributing to the violence it seeks to eradicate.

AWARDED THE BSC BLOG OF THE YEAR 2018

Dr. Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He previously taught at the University of Sussex and has received several awards and nominations for teaching excellence and academic support.

In an atmosphere of widespread alarm about the rise of youth violence in London, UK drill music has been identified as the prime suspect by the media and the police with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick and the Met’s gang-crime chief, Commander Jim Stokley ordering a clampdown on this new Black British music genre. Despite entirely legitimate concerns with public safety, however, is it at all reasonable to suggest that UK drill causes the violence it is accused of inspiring, or are drill artists cursed by forms of violence that are only scantily acknowledged, if at all, when the issue is discussed? Unsurprisingly, this question divides opinion and stirs up strong feelings on both sides of this never-ending chicken-and-egg conundrum, which also urges for an understanding of the problem as a political rather than a (purely) criminological one. Policing our way out of it, therefore, seems utterly misplaced when policing is part of the problem rather than its solution. Such a controversial claim invites skepticism, as it should, yet a cursory glance at the Met’s response to UK drill music reveals a host of hostile, unfair, illegitimate, and discriminatory tactics that have informed the policing of Black Britons and Black British music and culture in the post-war years.  For what it’s worth my own research illustrates this fairly clearly, but this blog posting will hopefully inspire more nuanced and considered responses than the ones to which we are currently exposed.

Denounced as ‘demonic’ and ‘nihilistic’, UK drill music came into the orbit of the London Metropolitan police after a series of violent incidents were linked to the content of drill music videos that circulated online: provoking rival drill collectives by describing the harm that awaits them, and keeping a tally of stabbings in YouTube “scoreboards”. In response to such fatalities, the Met took action by removing 30 YouTube videos and used a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) against the drill collective 1011,  building on the government’s Serious Violence Strategy whose aim is to target those who ‘glamorise gang or drug-selling life, taunt rivals and normalise weapons carrying’. In addition to such action against “gang-related” videos, the Terrorism Act 2000 has been revisited to bring convictions against individuals that are identified in those videos, without any proof that the targeted music videos were linked to specific acts of violence. The pursuit of drill artists as terror suspects has the potential to prevent targeted individuals from ‘associating with certain people, entering designated areas, wearing hoods, or using social media and unregistered mobile phones’. Given the seriousness of the offences with which drill artists are being charged, such responses might seem justifiable, albeit controversial, but only if they are divorced from the context in which (youth) violence emerges in the first place. Put simply, the reactive responses adopted by the government and the Met could be described as attempts to end an infection by simply arresting the virus, rather than treating the environment in which the disease is being hatched in the first place.

This might sound like a hopelessly radical assertion were it not defended by mainstream official bodies such as The Youth Violence Commission whose Interim Report confidently states that ‘debates around the potential impact of drill music on youth violence are, in the main, a populist distraction from understanding and tackling the real root causes’. Despite or rather because of the gravity of the problem, however, context and perspective are not a luxury but a necessity. Drill music is not made in a vacuum but in specific places (deprived social housing estates in London) informed by conditions of life where violence is a fact of life rather than a lifestyle. Blaming UK drill music for broadcasting violence, therefore, is to blame rappers for living a life where inequality, poverty, and social exclusion are not abstractions but a daily experience. Add to this the persistence of police racism as a crucial factor in the hostility, marginalisation and criminalisation that young Black Britons grow up with, and the policing of drill music can be seen as legitimating the very practices it hopes to eliminate. Increased support for stop and search operations, and other anti-gang initiatives such as Operation Trident and the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix may seem rhetorically effective as “crime-fighting tools” to law enforcement agencies and political parties alike, but they are only marginally successful overall, while also leading to discriminatory outcomes that were described as ‘shocking’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume.

This of course is nothing new in the history of policing against Black Britons, as my work demonstrates, punctuated as it has been by a host of discriminatory practices that include: the ‘sus laws’ of the 1970s, the saturation policing tactics of Operation Swamp ‘81, or the Special Patrol Groups (SPGs) in the 1970s and the 1980s; only to be succeeded by Operation Trident in the 1990s, and Operation Shield, the Metropolitan Police Gang Matrix, and Operation Domain in the early to mid-noughties. What unites such policing initiatives is the suspicion of Black British forms of culture, mostly music, as seen in the police overstaffing of Black cultural events (e.g. Notting Hill Carnival) and the harassment of Black people in meeting places such as youth clubs, music venues and other semi-public venues; gradually paving the way for the only recent withdrawal of the Promotion Event Risk Assessment Form 696 which targeted grime music as a criminal subculture, in ways that are hardly dissimilar to the banning of drill music as grime MC Lethal Bizzle rightly tweeted.

Pronouncing such practices dead, when they recur so frequently, is to piously deny facts in favour of an uninformed, uncritical and misplaced view of the police as allies rather than as perpetrators of the burning injustices that “drillers” so fiercely express in their lyrics. This is not to deny or condone the violence that UK drill music broadcasts and even celebrates, but to accept it as a reality that is forged in the crucible of social and racial injustice for which we are all responsible if we do not hold Criminal Justice System professionals to account for the harm they inflict in our name. Discussing UK drill as criminogenic while excusing the harm that discriminatory policing inflicts on our fellow citizens amounts to little more than a cop out. As does the tendency to treat the issue as a public health emergency alone, rather than a racial and social justice priority. The challenge for (critical) criminologists, therefore, is clear leaving us no choice but to tackle violent crime boldly, making it difficult for our colleagues, our elected representatives or our law enforcement officials to dodge a bullet as far as London’s knife crime is concerned.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

 

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Copyright free image courtsey of Pexels

 

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