Art not Crime. Artists not Criminals: Drill goes to Number One.

17 May 2021

In the early 2010s Chief Keef, an American rapper, singer and songwriter from Chicago created Drill, a sub-genre of rap music. He was in his early teens at the time and growing up in one of the most deprived and dangerous parts of Chicago. Keef gave expression to the conditions around him through his music. The music itself was minimalist: the melody haunting and the layering of beats ominous. The lyrics related to violence and drugs and were tinged with misogynistic and nihilistic expression.

A few years later in around 2014 a London based rap group known as 67 took on the genre and developed the sound, building on the austere lyrics and unsettling beats and melodies. They gained mainstream popularity and in 2016 they were nominated for a MOBO Award with their track ‘Lets Lurk’.

The genre has grown in popularity ever since, especially in the UK, and for the last two weeks the Official Singles Chart has been topped (for the first time ever) by a drill track called Body (Remix) [Feat. Arr Dee, E1(3x3), ZT(3x3), Bugzy Malone, Buni and Fivi].

Love it or loathe it, drill music continues to grow in popularity. It is clear that the music resonates with those familiar with poverty, uncertainty and the threat of violence; it is clear that the music provides a means of solace to those affected by the same; and it is clear that the music provides a platform for talented producers, musicians and lyricists alike.

So why is it criminalized? Why are the tracks and lyrics adduced as evidence in the course of prosecutions? The answer is simply to inspire fear and prejudice and to persuade jurors to convict those involved in gang violence where the evidence relevant to the offence itself is unclear and insufficient.

On 25th February 2021 Justice published a report: Tackling Racial Injustice: Children and the Youth Justice System

In summary the report sets out that the CJS has mistakenly construed (both literally and culturally) the content and production of drill music with what those involved have actually seen, heard or done. The report sets out that the nature of the genre is to use lyrics that are intended to shock. Lyrics of a violent and sexual nature are exaggerated to create and impact and create a sense of fear.

The report goes on to recommend that unless the music in question can be shown to relate to a specific crime then it should not be adduced (as bad character). Further, that where the track is, or the lyrics are, adduced, these should only be presented to the jury by way of an expert giving evidence where the lyrics are undecipherable and where experts for both sides have agreed the interpretation.

One analysis of this recommendation may be that evidence of drill music should only be adduced under section 98 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (to do with the alleged facts of the offence) and not under sections 100 to 113 of the same act (evidence of a disposition towards misconduct, misconduct or reprehensible behaviour).

To adduce drill music under these latter provisions would be unfair, as LD (a member of the Brixton Hill-based six-piece) pointed out: “You have drill, you have grime, you have rap, R&B and hip-hop. And in each one of those categories – I can guarantee you – there will be someone that mentions guns, that mentions killings; all of the fuckery that you hear in drill. I was born in 1992; it’s been like that since the year I was born. So why now are you focusing on drill? Drill is just a style of rapping. It’s speeded up on an aggressive and bassy beat. So, what are you sayin it’s the beats that’s making people mad, that’s making people kill each other? Because it can’t be the lyrics. Those lyrics are in every genre of music, and it’s been like that from before I was born.”

He has a point.

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Leila Gaskin.