In an unintended confirmation of the power of art, the London police force has applied for a court order to stop five known gang members, aged 17 from 21, from making music. Specifically, they will be not allowed to make drill music, a particularly violent subgenre of hip hop.
According to The Independent, the youths are members of a gang called 1011 and were arrested carrying an array of weapons, obviously on their way to carrying out a revenge attack on a rival gang member. They claimed the weapons were props for a music video. (Nice postmodern touch, that.) They have since pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit violent disorder. Prosecutors used their threatening music videos as evidence in their sentencing. The police applied for a criminal behaviour order that would ban them from entering the recording studio.
Drill music (named after a slang word for shooting) originated in Chicago where it has caused similar controversy. In both the United States and Britain, it comes out of crime-ridden districts and is made by gang members or those who claim to be gang members. In Britain, the names of the groups – A6 (Block 6), A1 From the 9, R6 (67) – often have numbers in them, references to districts. The words are thick with slang and codes and often refer to recent events in the underworld. Other gangsters are referred to by names or initials, and they are often directly threatened. Sometimes news of who has gone to prison is included.
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Here is a typical snippet, from British rapper A1 From the 9: “Let’s talk about your big bro came Eddy Green got slumped on the back road/ Young Kash that’s Big Kash /Shoulda learnt from your bro instead you’re out giving chitchat.” I have no idea who is being discussed but this is clearly oral history as well as a threat.
This then is a form of public communication among rival gangs. It is distributed almost entirely on social media, not through any commercial form of publishing. The London police, facing an alarming increase in violent gang crime, say social media inflame these wars.
It could be said that there is a specific aesthetic that the police are trying to ban. Drill videos from Britain follow an extremely strict and austere aesthetic template. Without exception they present a group of young men in a parking lot or schoolyard at night, staring and gesturing straight into the camera. Most of them are wearing masks, usually black masks, sometimes bandannas, sometimes ski masks or other hoods. They make gang signs and point at you, the viewer, as if threatening you directly. They say “bang bang” to the camera, a lot. This is meant to intimidate enemies, one supposes, but it is an odd conflation of audience and enemy.
Why do these black masks seem so familiar? We know them from other threatening videos: ISIS propaganda videos. Different young men, similar cult of death. Same aesthetic.
Now we enter the difficult realm of the value of censorship and the idea of hate-art. This is the first time British police have sought an order preventing the creation of music. Well, public incitements to violence are generally illegal. YouTube does its best to eliminate the ISIS videos, and prosecutors use them as evidence of complicity in terrorism, so why not these? Death threats are always illegal.
But what about death threats set to music? Those are art. Should they be protected as expression and not reality? There is, after all, a long history of play-acting in hip hop, of bravado, and some of it is sheer fantasy. We can never tell if anyone pretending to be a gangster in a music video really is. This fact is so well known that the fake gangster has become something of a caricature in popular culture. (Think of J-Roc, the white rapper character in Trailer Park Boys, who spreads the rumour that he has been jailed and hides under his trailer instead.)
Are these songs hate speech? They certainly encourage and promise acts of violence, but toward individuals, not toward an identifiable ethnic or gender group. Indeed, the threats are directed internally, toward members of the same group.
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It has already been suggested that to remove these guys’ only means of public expression would constitute a kind of discrimination. They are members of a marginalized demographic with no voice, and music is where they discuss the realities of their fractured and dangerous lives. Eliminating a reflection of that world will not address the fact of the world itself. Keeping them out of the studio only keeps them on the streets. In Britain several experts have spoken out against the gag orders. A youth worker called Ciaran Thapar told The Independent, “There’s a lot of music being made by, most of the time, young people that have no other investment or way out of poverty. [Banning drill] is not just and it’s not going to be useful.” A petition is circulating to get the music of 1011 back on YouTube; so far it has over 5,000 signatures.
Given the instant churn of the internet, parody videos of this genre are already in existence. British comedian Michael Dapaah, whose alter ego is Big Shaq, nonsensical drill rapper, performs the song Man’s Not Hot on tropical beaches while wearing a heavy puffy jacket – with the defiant refrain “Man’s not hot”.
In other words, like it or not, this artistic genre has already established a beachhead in mainstream culture. It is a thing now. It is a thing because it is already being mocked – and this more than anything else robs it of its power. The parodies of this absurdly insecure posturing will keep coming and continue to deflate drill songs of their terrifying glamour. Perhaps an unregulated pop culture is actually self-regulating in this regard: The internet can sap the bullies of their dignity faster and more humiliatingly than any court can.