A Drill Story (ENG): Music as a way of evolution
Updated: Mar 3
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Even though UK drill has been gaining in popularity at an exponential rate internationally in recent months, it may be important to keep in mind that the genre still remains at the heart of a large number of controversies in the United Kingdom. Indeed, drill’s harsh lyrics, which often make reference to Great Britain’s knifecrime problem, are in no respect well perceived by the police.
The documentary Defending Digga D, available on BBC 3, follows the young rapper, fresh home following a 15-month stay in prison, as he focuses on his pursuit of a successful career in music. The premiere of this documentary provides an opportunity to reflect upon the relationship which binds the success brought by music to the context from which drill originates. This opposition precisely is brought forth by Headie One for instance. Through his mixtape Music X Road, the clash between rap on the one hand and the artist’s priors on the other hand appears clearly. This division is however somewhat tougher to define at times, as progressing away from certain environments has proven to be a difficult task. The focus is nevertheless placed on evolution, as underlined by emblematic Grime figure Skepta, who appears on the list of features of the 15-track project.
The prospect of evolution, or at least of growth, is at the heart of the drill movement. However, the bad publicity around the genre hinders this, which is partly due to the way in which the police view drill: it is still often perceived as prompting hate and violence. Criminality in the country’s most underprivileged areas has admittedly become a true issue, as shown by the massive surge in attacks involving knives these past few years. Drill lyrics being known for communicating this grim reality and the violence it is synonymous of to the public, one can clearly see what the problem faced by police consists of.
Yet certain measures adopted against some artists show a certain level of contradiction. This is the case for Digga D, who enjoys a headliner status in the drill scene but recently saw himself being forced to submit his lyrics to law enforcement 24 hours upon their release. This process then defines whether the rapper is granted the right to put out his music.
This type of tight control over artists’ career in music based on prior convictions could already be observed as early as 2017. Indeed, drill collective 67 from Brixton Hills in South London got banned from performing live, and the police had gone as far as prohibiting group-member Scribz from putting out music in any way shape or form following him being convicted on drug trafficking charges. The rapper was in fact listed as a “danger to the public”. Being aware that, in an era dominated by streaming platforms, live performances represent the largest share of an artist’s income, one can clearly take conscience here of the extent to which law enforcement’s actions impede on any transition towards a better life.
In Digga D’s case, the police had argued that they were merely fulfilling their role, namely preventing people from being murdered.
"We're not in the business of killing anyone's fun, we're not in the business of killing anyone's artistic expression - we are in the business of stopping people being killed."
However, drill’s “violence” is drawn from the environment from which the artists come and in which they live, not the opposite. Even though one can argue about the influence some rappers hold over their public, blaming music for outbreaks of violence is entirely ludicrous. Indeed, one can often find lines going against the idea that drill music encourages and glorifies crime. This is again the case for Headie, who clarifies the following on Chanel :
I don’t glamourise jail /Them lonely nights, they were shit
Furthermore, it has been established that the crisis in which certain areas in the UK find themselves nowadays is to a large extent due to a decrease in public sector spending. The government cutting back in such a way, as well as across a wide range of services, is indeed known to often be linked to the emergence of such situations.
In addition, encountering success as an artist has to potential of allowing one to escape the aforementioned violence- music may change the fate of some by taking them away from a life otherwise punctuated by stays in prison. Rap and every opportunity around it should thus be seen as a way out of this life, rather than as a way to worsen the situation. This is namely the case for 67, who state to have now left their past behind thanks to the success brought by drill and in spite of law enforcement’s actions. This is also true for Digga D, who explained in an interview given to the BBC that rap is capable of turning the future into something positive.
“People have a past. It's just about moving away from it and having a positive future.”
The fact that movements like drill and formerly grime have brought a lot is also mentioned in a YouTube documentary series entitled Together We Rise presented by GRM Daily. The 5 episodes retrace the British media’s journey to success and demonstrate that the rap scene in general can have an overall truly positive impact on certain communities. Through the testimonies of numerous artists, one can establish the following two things. Firstly, the importance for these MCs to express themselves and to have a voice, and secondly how much new life can breathed into certain communities that have been marginalised by the UK’s system through music.
Nevertheless, Great Britain’s Justice system seems to wish to go against the artists’ evolution process, turning any controversy or trial around drill into an even more delicate matter. The complexity of this question is acutely touched upon in the introduction of the album Music, Trial and Trauma: A Drill Story by drill pioneer Loski through the voice-over of a journalist going over the events surrounding a trial the artist is at the heart of:
« (…) Many are confused by the timing of this all, as Loski’s career was taking off before this controversy. Is he a criminal gang member or is his crime not cutting ties with people he grew up with? The trial has taken on new importance within the black community in light of race relations and the accepted, unconscious bias that black people experience in society on a whole. Leaders are calling for disenfranchised youth to be listened to and understood. Drill is the music of today’s youth, and this is a drill story.”
This voice-over underlines with absolute accuracy a large part of the problems surrounding drill in Great Britain: trials arriving at key points of some artists’ careers, the police criticising rappers for remaining close to the people alongside which they have grown up, the importance of the problem of institutionalised racist discrimination in the UK and finally the idea that the country’s marginalised youth should be given a voice.
In short, music has the potential to pave the way to success but the artists' past catching up with them constantly delays this evolution. This can indeed be understood through another line from Loski:
“And if I didn't go jail in '019 Then I woulda had a mil, that's facts”- Loski’s Daily Duppy
One can therefore understand once again how much drill music leans more towards having an overly positive outcome. This genre, which has been going through a period of full effervescence these last few years, fosters two things that are key to bettering the United Kingdom’s current situation. Firstly, it presents artists with an opportunity to grow and evolve as well as to escape violence that is sadly part of reality, for instance through the financial freedom brought by a successful career. Secondly, it provides the youth mentioned by Loski’s intro with a way of expressing themselves about problems they end up being most affected by. Drill should thus be perceived as an alternative, which is something some areas in Great Britain sorely lack. Moreover, the way in which the genre is seen by law enforcement has led to policies that are completely and utterly counter-productive. Though any crime or offense should be punished in compliance with the law, this is a case of facilitating artists’ evolution rather than hindering it.