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What We Can Learn From UK Drill Music About Britain’s Racial Divide?


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UK Drill Music is infamously known in British media as the epitome of the ‘black on black knife crime and gang violence problem’ in the UK. What many of these critiques fail to point out is what rapper Headie One expresses quite frankly in his 2018 single, Of Course ‘I’m a product of my environment… So my music course it’s violent’. Is Drill’s nihilistic, violent, and raw themes really able to glorify criminal activity if it is the reality of their experiences? By just googling UK Drill music, you are bombarded with images of young black males, hoods up, faces usually covered, standing in a group in a gritty urban location. The one thing that these images fail to show, is the longstanding racial socioeconomic inequality that impacts young black people from deprived areas in Britain the most. To be black in Britain, you are faced with both a lack of social and economic opportunities.

Neoliberalism (best defined as a modification of liberalism based on free market capitalism) has been the forefront of modern British politics, encouraging the privatisation and deregulation of public services, marketisation of public schools through league tables, and fierce austerity cuts, leading to the closure of thousands of youth clubs, libraries, and children centres across the UK. All of this has had a disproportionate impact on socioeconomically deprived young people from BAME backgrounds, who are one of the most excluded and deprived groups in Britain.

A recent UN report (2019) showed that due to hostile immigration policies and austerity racially motivated hate crime, racial profiling and socio-economic inequalities have rose across BAME communities in the UK, ‘reinforcing racial subordination’. Austerity measures have reduced living standards in black and Asian households by around 11%. Furthermore, black men are more likely to be unemployed, and subject to crime and poverty. This all becomes part of a spiral that is almost impossible to break out of, as black youth find it harder and harder to climb up the social ladder, excluding them from authentic representation across employment, public services, and other institutions.

Writing in the early 1900’s, Sociologist W.E.B Du Bois suggested that the problem in the 20th Century was ‘the problem of the color line’, arguing that although black people had been freed from slavery, they were still held back by ongoing economic, social and political exclusion that continued racial conflict. Fast forward to today in the UK, and we can see the same issue is still prevalent.

Bro wanna make some money, there’s no job there to help him out… They don’t wanna help him out, so he hit the trap and he’s in jail now… Guy just tryna survive, make sure that God put food in their mouth’ – Skengdo, From South

Looking into the lyrics of Drill songs, we can see this subordination, ‘there’s no job there… just tryna survive’. Here Skengdo expresses the pressure that forces young black people into illegitimate lifestyles. With more privatisation, Britain has become more individualised, encouraging self-reliance and less state intervention, and dependency has been defined as failure. Individuals like these young black males in impoverished environments feel they have no choice but to turn to illegitimate means to make money. This is no surprise considering in 2015, 1 in 8 of the working age population were from a BAME background yet BAME individuals only make up 10% of the workforce and hold only 6% of top management positions in the UK. How are they meant to believe they can reach these positions and break out of their current situations if they do not see anyone like themselves there?

Whilst austerity cuts have impacted BAME groups more, they have been simultaneously disproportionately targeted by the Criminal Justice System. Young black men are more likely to be stopped and search than any other ethnic group. Dating back to colonialism, black men have always been misrepresented in the western imagination as wild, criminal and animalistic, justifying the mass exploitation and discrimination of black people across centuries. This continued into popular culture and media through racially charged anti-black images such as blackface. Ethnic signifiers become a dominant means for us to make cognitive assumptions about each other in which we frame and interpret our experience, continuing to determine the value and status of young black males. Various media channels tend to pathologize knife crime and gang violence, labelling it as a black problem. As we are in a society that has always misrepresented what it means to be black, it is hard not to dismiss the surface level critiques of UK Drill music by popular media channels. We must tell the full story.

Hip Hop is a great example of a black music genre in the past that rose during the US Reagan era (1981- 1989), a neoliberal agenda that enforced less state interventions through the reduction of welfare services, defining them as the root of the issue. As a consequence, working class African Americans continued to experience persistent poverty. Reduced funding across schools and child services increased destitution in ghettos the growth of Black and Latino gang power. Hip Hop became an outlet and tool for street gangs to compete creatively instead of violently. Hip Hop, like Blues music, was the ‘voice of the alienated and oppressed’, as Afrocentricity was established as a central theme in Hip Hop, focusing on the history and struggle of black lives.

However like lots of other aspects of black culture, once commodified, Hip Hop became known as less of a cultural practice, and more about cars, women, parties, and crime. On the one hand commentators argue the genre is distasteful, indulging in the hypersexualisation and objectification of women, corrupting young people’s morals and values. Others argue that the sound is a reflection of what its really like to grow up in impoverished neighbourhoods as black in the USA, a form of empowerment and a place for the black experience to be voiced to evoke change. Some go as far to call Hip Hop, like the civil rights movement, as an embodiment of the protest aesthetic, pointing out several events in its past where rappers have fought for political justice such as The Million Man March. However, many of these ventures have been left out of the limelight.

With this in mind, we can see that UK Drill music has had similar publicity. The genre has been targeted as a moral panic, dismissing structural and root causes of knife crime and gang violence, scapegoating young black artists, echoing previous moral panics around black people throughout history. For example, in the 1970’s when mugging in the UK became synonymous with black youth, racializing crime by exclusively targeting them. After various stabbings and shootings linked to UK Drill, the criminal justice system introduced several strategies to tackle the genre. For example, Drill duo Skengdo X AM were sentenced to 9 months in prison and suspended for two years for breaching an order that prohibited them from performing specific songs. In one interview successful rap duo Krept and Konan argue that outlawing the music will only force people back into criminality, ‘before music, there was just jails, gangs, and getting arrested’.

Stereotyping… we all know he can’t stand my blackness… No they can’t stand my blackness, see a black yute and they all think stabbings. You don’t even know this guy, he wears a tracksuit so you think he’s trapping, I got 9 months suspended for rapping, still can’t believe that happened’ – Skengdo, From South

But does UK Drill music have the same potential to elevate change by being a platform for black youth to voice their struggle? The genre Is still very new and so relatively difficult to tell. But with the right emphasis, and the right approach, the genre undoubtedly has positive potential. In order for these artists to break out of the cycle, they need pathways and opportunities. The pressures of living in impoverished environments can lead to feelings of hopelessness, stress and anxiety, contributing significantly to poor mental wellbeing. It is really important that we do not deter these artists from expressing themselves. Creating music allows them not only works therapeutically in helping youth to share their story, but also offers them the potential of a music career. Countless young black musician in the UK have managed to transform their lives through their talent – many have even helped improve their childhood neighbourhoods and communities with their claim to fame too. Such as world-wide successful Grime artist from Croydon Stormzy, who after the recent Black Lives Matter Movement across the world has recently pledged £10 million over the next ten years to UK organisations, charities and movements that fight racial inequality, just reform and black empowerment.

Although this is only part of the picture of the racial divide in the UK, Drill music is a useful tool in several ways. Not only is it giving artists a voice, a sense of empowerment, but giving policymakers, youth services, and other institutions and organisations an insight into the level of discontent and the thoughts and feelings of black youth today. The genre has become extremely popular in the last two years, as UK Drill songs have managed to reach the official UK Charts. There is clearly a market and an interest in this subculture. Instead of criminalising it, widening the gap of understanding between young people and the rest of society, we need to work to understand it. As stated, before we must tell the full story. And to do so, we must look deeper into the phenomenon.

Read more of our articles in our NEWEST Mojatu Magazine.

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