Drill down: Drill music, social media and serious youth violence

Joe Caluori | Patrick Olajide

Friday 4 February 2022




The final theme in Crest Advisory’s research programme examining the drivers of violence focuses on the role of social media. Our main report on the relationship between social media and violence will be published in Spring 2022 - but here, in the first of two ‘long reads’, Head of Research and Policy Joe Caluori, and Analyst Patrick Olajide look at the controversies surrounding ‘drill’ music.
A view has taken hold in parts of the criminal justice system - the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and among some magistrates and judges - that ‘drill’ music videos posted on social media channels can cause serious violence between young people. The challenges of responding to this perceived risk highlights a wider problem facing police forces and children's services, as threats of violence migrate into a virtual world unfamiliar to adults.

What is drill music?

 

The origins of drill music can be traced back to the early 2000s to 2010s when it emerged as a darker sub-genre of ‘trap’ music - which itself was a sub-genre of US hip hop [1].


‘Trap’ is a term which commonly refers to the use of ‘trap houses’ in illegal drug markets, so called because there is only one way in and one way out of a fortified drug house. Trap houses are similar to ‘crack houses’ which rose to prominence as part of urban drug supply networks in the UK in the 1990s as police clamped down on dealing drugs in the open. ‘Trap’ and ‘trapping’ are often used more generally to describe involvement in drug dealing as a ‘trap’ from which it is difficult to escape.


In the UK, drill largely followed on from the grime and road rap scenes, taking inspiration from the beats of the South Side Chicago (USA) streets and the meteoric rise to fame of young artists such as Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and Lil Durk. UK drill music shares much with the ‘trap’ rap of the southern US States, but is noted for a more stripped-down sound and an arguably more ‘direct’ relationship to crime and violence” [2]. UK drill music initially gained prominence in Lambeth, a borough in south London [3], specifically Brixton, via independent YouTube uploads from rappers and artists belonging to (or claiming to belong to) gangs, such as 150, Uptop, and 67. The genre saw increasing popularity as an American cultural import and has burgeoned within London’s young, Black and minority ethnic communities since the mid to late-2010s, spawning regional sub-genres across the UK such as ‘Scouse Trap’ from Merseyside artists such as Tremz, Giggz and Bally Jones.


In 2018, drill music hit the top 100 of the official singles chart for the first time. By the end of 2020, a further 17 drill singles had reached the charts. In 2021, a drill song made it to the top of the charts, highlighting the genre’s growing appeal and popularity across a wide audience.


Drill has changed a lot since its 2011 origins, and is popularly regarded as being more positive and less explicitly violent than it was in its earlier forms. Fans of drill music are a diverse group in terms of their social class, race and age, and in general seem to seek out more positive content within the genre. [4]


Controversy

 

Serious concerns have been raised that drill music causes violence through the use of lyrics and imagery which glorify gang crime and violence. It is commonly asserted that drill content often contains specific references to individuals and groups in a way that causes violent acts.


An alternative point of view is that the negative responses to drill music are signs of a ‘moral panic’ of a type which often attaches itself to forms of media created by and consumed by Black people. Even when they are making (non-violent) political or social arguments in their songs, Black musicians - especially rappers - are sometimes on the receiving end of harsh criticism from the public, press or the government. For example, Stormzy’s performance at the Brits [5], when he exclaimed "Yo, Theresa May, where's that money for Grenfell? What you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?" [6] and artist Dave’s performance of his song “Black”. Dave was celebrating his experience, upbringing and perspective as a member of the Black British community but was accused of stoking racial divisions; his performance led to over 300 complaints to Ofcom. [7]


Violent genres of media often suffer from an ‘adverse selection bias’, whereby individuals looking for violence or considering carrying out acts of violence seek the vicarious consumption of violence - for example through music. However, that does not reflect the behaviour of the wider audience. The Safer Lives Survey, by the Youth Violence Commission (2020), found that 47 per cent of young people aged between 8 and 27 listened to music with violent lyrics at least once a day. If violent music significantly increased the propensity to commit violence among those who listened to it, rates of violence among young people might be expected to be notably higher.


‘Street literacy’

 

Irwin-Rogers et al [8] argued that although many tracks simply reflect the general violence of gang life, others can feature specific threats to harm or kill members of rival gangs. Ciaran Thapar, a youth worker and author, is cited in the Youth Violence Commission as noting that ‘in specific circumstances [drill music] fuels gang rivalries and a propensity for youth violence’.


It is also said that postcode rivalries and gang feuds have been made public and heightened by the circulation of ‘diss tracks’ on YouTube and other platforms, in which groups can be heard taunting or mocking their rivals. [9]


One example concerns the killing of Sidique Kamara, who was stabbed to death in Camberwell, south London. Kamara was both a drill artist, who went by the alias Incognito, and a member of the Moscow 17 gang, which was engaged in a long-running ‘postcode war’ with rival gang Zone 2, based in Peckham, South London.


The killing was referred to by the rival group, Zone 2, in the drill song “No Censor”, where members listed the following deaths and violent attacks, as well as their alleged participation in the activities: [10]


Incog got put in a spliff (Bill it) –[A reference to the 2018 killing of Sidique Kamara]

GB got put in a spliff (Bill it) – [ A reference to the 2018 shooting of rapper GB]

SA got put in a spliff (Bill it) –[References “Harlem Spartans” Rapper SA, (aka Latz/Splash Adictz /L1) killed 2018]

Lil CJ got put in a spliff –[ References Clinton Evbota who was stabbed to death in October 2019]

(Genius 2019)


The song was later removed from YouTube along with a selection of 30 other drill music videos, following requests from the Metropolitan Police.


Drill content varies considerably, from hyper-local tracks to commercial songs reaching a mass audience; the people creating the music have differing objectives - just as those involved in other genres do. There are undeniably cases in which drill music has been used to threaten violence or gloat about attacks that have occured and in some cases, identifiable drill rappers have used their profiles on social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube to document and further ramp up tensions and threats. But this type of content is in a minority within the wider drill genre.


That is why it is vital to interpret accurately the meaning of drill content in relation to violent crime. ‘Street illiteracy’ [11] refers to the process by which the misreading of drill by the police, courts and local authorities counteracts the aims of crime prevention and control. It feeds into a moral panic surrounding the criminality of Black culture by ignoring “the ambiguity, braggadocio and fact-fiction hybridity that are characteristic of the genre”. [12] The increasingly literal interpretation of drill lyrics, as biographical, admissible evidence, is arguably at odds with the research surrounding drill music, music, and violence, and could ‘amount to a form of racialised epistemic injustice’. [13] This is highlighted by the subjective nature in which determinations of misconduct, bad character or criminality are made when using drill within prosecutions. ‘Street illiteracy’ and the simplification of culture in the criminal justice system risk criminalising young Black men and their lyrical expression, while failing to understand what they are actually rapping about and why.


The decentralised nature of the modern music industry provides an exhilarating opportunity for many young people. Artists can move from hyper-local followings on social media to a commercial mass market following, without requiring the approval of music industry gatekeepers. But it also gives criminals opportunities to groom, recruit, threaten and exploit others for personal gain. The battle to police the virtual - social media - world, and to safeguard vulnerable children who live so much of their lives in it, is one of the most significant challenges facing police forces and children’s services. Police attempts to address the potential harms arising from some drill music content highlight that wider struggle.


The evidence

 

Individual drill artists have committed serious criminal offences and drill content has been used as evidence in trials of people accused of violent offences. But no records are available to show how often that has happened and it is not possible to say how much weight was given to such evidence by judges, magistrates or juries in their deliberations.


A report by Policy Exchange [14] made a number of controversial claims about ‘gang’-related homicides in 2018-19, suggesting drill music caused or contributed to the violence. The report said: “We have found at least 23 per cent of cases to be linked to drill music”. However, it is difficult to find the empirical basis of these assertions. The report does not provide clarification over the specific connections it identified; the extent of the alleged involvement between “some” drill music and the homicides; or the metrics underpinning the report’s central conclusion.


Given how rarely defendants in homicide cases, such as those cited by Policy Exchange, disclose the motive for a killing, it seems a leap of faith to infer causality between drill content and killings, unless drill music videos contain specific threats to kill or cause harm to victims or their associates. Social media is often used in ‘expressive’ ways by gang members to build their reputation and identity. Whittaker et al [15] argue that less established gangs and younger gang members are more likely to use social media in that way. Older gang members and established gangs “have increasingly realised that content on more open social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, can be used as evidence against them”.


Given the implications for child protection, safeguarding and violence reduction, further research is needed into the way prosecutors use drill music content in criminal trials. That would be particularly beneficial for cases in which the Prosecution use drill videos and comments posted under videos as evidence, or rely on expert witnesses to interpret drill content in court.


Project Alpha - the way forward?

 

The way the Met Police has treated drill musicians has come under increasing scrutiny, following their use of the Serious Crime Act and the introduction of criminal behaviour orders and serious crime prevention orders. One of the most notorious cases concerned the artists Skengdo and AM who were given one-year suspended prison sentences after they breached a gang injunction by performing their song “Attempted 1.0”. The Index on Censorship has described this as the first time in British history that a prison sentence was issued for performing a song”. [16]


The orders—colloquially referred to by police as “gang ASBOs”—place restrictions on the creative output of drill artists. That has resulted in a ban on behaviour assessed as being anti-social or inciting violence, such as artists’ use of particular lyrics, performances in certain areas and associations between specific individuals.


Between 2015 and 2018, the Met requested the deletion of 148 drill music videos from YouTube; 124 were eventually removed - but the process was often lengthy and complex. It sometimes involved the FBI, the National Crime Agency and Regional Organised Crime Units. In 2019, the force set up Project Alpha to short-circuit procedures for removing harmful content. The programme - originally sponsored by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and funded by the Home Office - was designed to “provide dedicated capability to tackle gang related serious violence and organised criminality that includes county lines offending by taking action against online activity… making referrals to social media companies for the removal of illegal and harmful content intended to incite serious violence.”


Videos made by gangs, basic ‘bait’ videos and more sophisticated Grime, drill and Trap music videos have been taken down. The apparent success of Alpha has convinced the Home Office to extend and increase funding, with further pilot schemes in other police forces.


But there is no equivalent response to the threat from harmful social media in the world of child protection and safeguarding. Local authority children’s services do not search for drill tracks which directly involve vulnerable young people and which appear to describe and encourage specific acts of violence.


‘Working Together To Safeguard Children’ sets out the Department for Education’s requirements for organisations involved in safeguarding, child protection and reviewing deaths in England. It applies mainly to local councils, police and health agencies. But the updated document, issued in 2018, does not mention social media or digital communications in terms of the risks they present or how social workers and other practitioners should engage with children.


In fact, social workers are often discouraged from engaging with young people via social media for fear of crossing professional boundaries. When a review is conducted into the death of a young person, those carrying it out do not ask for evidence of the child’s views as expressed through their social media accounts and rarely refer to social media in their reports unless it is mentioned in the notes of practitioners involved in the case. As a result, such reviews are limited to scrutinising interactions between child protection services, the young person and their family. That leaves huge gaps in the ability of the child protection system to learn from the deaths of children, where social media is an aggravating factor, and to make recommendations.


If drill content has played a direct causal role in the deaths of young people, evidence of that won’t be found in case reviews or thematic studies from government agencies such as Ofsted. Some case reviews contain limited references to harmful online content, but as no service is responsible for managing such risks, these are passing mentions rather than identifiable missed opportunities for intervention.


This raises serious questions. If police find evidence of vulnerable young people in drill videos which are judged to inflame violence, how should that be reported to a local authority? And what should the local authority do with concerns raised about harmful online content ‘at the front door’? If a child is well known to support services, police may be able to seek multi-agency discussions about their welfare, but that seems hazardously down to luck in terms of the reviewing officer’s experience and knowledge. If a drill video is referred to a local authority, how will they identify the participants? What intervention is there to prevent their involvement in violence caused by such content? These are questions we aim to address in our final report on the relationship between social media and violence.


The potential risks to children from individual drill music videos and other forms of harmful social media are seen predominantly in the rearview mirror - when the priority should be to take measures to prevent problems occurring.


Conclusion

 

Drill music may be a victim of racialised simplicity, if violent lyrics and intimidating, street-savvy personas performed by its artists are taken at face value. Attempts to suppress drill music through online censorship or restrictions on performances have not always drawn a distinction between tracks with direct threats and the genre as a whole. But it is important to acknowledge that some drill music does lead to real-world violence when it is used as a medium to directly threaten or humiliate people and as such it is inevitable that it will attract the attention of law enforcement.


Under policing operations, such as Alpha, drill content and other material is often taken down without artists being given a warning or explanation - and even if there’s no proof of a connection to gangs or incitement to violence. That feeds into the artists’ perceptions of racialised injustice, and of the police as a barrier to legitimate economic success. Transparency with artists as to the criteria governing why videos are removed could therefore help to start a constructive dialogue with the communities most affected by violence and gang related harms.


Drill is already moving away from the violent themes which characterised its earlier form. The genre is likely to see further changes or potentially vanish altogether by the time academics, the criminal justice system and children’s services are equipped to deal with it (grime, a similarly demonised genre, is no longer as popular as it was in the 2000s). Therefore, this conversation should not be narrowly focused on drill music, but about youth culture more widely, online mass media consumption amongst young people, violence and the future of safeguarding.


Social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are an integral part of the social lives of children in the UK: 87% of 12-15 year olds report using social media via websites or apps; virtually all (99%) report using video sharing portals (VSPs); and 60% use live streaming apps and websites. [17] Yet the role of technology in facilitating serious violence remains a significant blind spot within the national response to youth violence. As harmful types of behaviour migrate from the real world into the virtual space young people increasingly inhabit, they are far less visible to the professionals charged with safeguarding the welfare of the vulnerable - teachers, social workers, youth workers, healthcare staff and police officers. That poses huge challenges to understanding levels of risk young people experience and developing plans to prevent, detect and disrupt violence.


The 2018 Home Office Serious Violence strategy says there is strong evidence that rival gangs use social media to promote gang culture, taunt each other and incite violence. However, government policies to address social media as a cause of violence are largely absent from its approach to violence reduction:


  • The Serious Violence Duty will create a new legal duty on police, local councils, fire and rescue authorities and health and criminal justice agencies to reduce violent crime. The official guidance explaining how the duty would operate does not contain any references to social media or mobile communications technology.

  • Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) The interim Home Office guidance for VRUs does not reference social media. The VRUs can choose to address social media in their plans, but they are not resourced at a level which would allow them to employ digital analysts to lead such work.

  • The draft Online Safety Bill does not clarify the status of ‘harmful’ content (such as drill videos threatening violence) when they are shared in ‘closed’ (increasingly end-to -end encrypted) social media channels such as Whatsapp groups and Instagram.


The Online Safety Bill (once it is introduced and approved by Parliament) should explicitly recognise the ways in which serious youth violence can be caused by the harmful use of social media. The Bill should require companies operating social media platforms to take measures to prevent them being used to promote or organise violence against children, in open or closed online communities. Severe financial penalties should be imposed on firms which break the rules. MPs scrutinising legislation must openly discuss where the balance lies in the responsibilities of tech companies, parents, schools, children’s services and police forces in protecting children.


Police forces must be resourced to do the job we are asking them to do. The days of having a handful of analysts with the necessary skills to protect children from online threats must end, with better training and larger teams of digital specialists.


Violence Reduction Units are starting to invest in prevention initiatives locally, but many of the biggest levers for preventing serious violence lie outside the criminal justice system. Local authorities and schools, in particular, must step up to the plate. It is no longer tenable for managers who operate services and run departments to avoid including online harms in a conversation about violence reduction simply because the technology is increasingly alien to them.


When services charged with protecting children from violence are armed with the best possible information, training and tools, they will be able to conduct their safeguarding roles more effectively, with greater levels of support and consent amongst the communities most affected by violence and gang related harms. They will also reduce the risk of blundering into ‘street illiteracy’ around media such as drill, alienating young people by misunderstanding music which they may not personally enjoy but which is a commercially successful mainstream art-form.



 

References


[1] Thapar, C. (2017), ‘From Chicago to Brixton: The Surprising Rise of UK drill’, The Fader, 27 April 2017

[2] Ilan, J., 2020. Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why criminalizing Drill music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive. The British Journal of Criminology, [online] 60(4), pp.994-1013

[3] Thapar, C. (2017), ‘From Chicago to Brixton: The Surprising Rise of UK Drill’, The Fader, 27 April 2017

[4] Thapar, C. (2017), ‘From Chicago to Brixton: The Surprising Rise of UK Drill’, The Fader, 27 April 2017

[5] Reuters. 2022. Stormzy is better at rap than politics, UK's Gove says. [online] [Accessed 3 February 2022].

[6] Elgot, J., 2022. No 10 defends PM after Stormzy's Grenfell freestyle at Brits. [online] the Guardian. [Accessed 3 February 2022].

[7] White, A., 2022. Ofcom rejects 309 complaints that Dave’s Brit Awards performance was ‘racist’. [online] The Independent.[Accessed 3 February 2022].

[8] Irwin-Rogers, K. and Pinkney, C., 2017. Social media as a catalyst and trigger for youth violence. Catch22.

[9] Cobain, I., 2018. London Drill rapper killed in knife attack admitted music's effect on crime. [online] the Guardian.

[10] Genius. 2019. No Censor! Zone 2. [online]

[11] Ilan, J., 2020. Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why criminalizing Drill music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive. The British Journal of Criminology, [online] 60(4), pp.994-1004

[12] Ilan, J., 2020. Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why criminalizing Drill music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive. The British Journal of Criminology, [online] 60(4), pp.995

[13] Owusu-Bempah, A., 2021. Part of art or part of life? Rap lyrics in criminal trials | British Politics and Policy at LSE. [online] Blogs.lse.ac.uk.

[14] Falkner, S., 2022. Knife Crime in the Capital - Policy Exchange. [online] Policy Exchange.

[15] Whittaker et al (2018). From Postcodes to Profits: Changes in gang activity in Waltham Forest. [online] ResearchGate. 2022

[16] Mohdin, A., 2021. Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ Body is first Drill song to go to UK No 1. [online] the Guardian.

[17] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/217825/children-and-parents-media-use-and-attitudes-report2020-21.pdf


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