Ciaran Thapar: Drill Music: An Opportunity for Understanding and Empowering
The Youth Violence Commission’s final report treats youth violence as a product of societal failure. It is grounded in the realism of testimony sourced from experts and victims, and driven by a practical motivation to challenge the status quo. In the face of confusion on the subject of youth violence, institutional dysfunction and visible socioeconomic inequality, the YVC has served a major public good by publishing these findings.
Since 2014, my youth work and journalism has led me to trace the inception of UK drill — a thriving local genre of violent rap. This music form is inherently digital. Its violent lyrics, provocative music videos and wider ecosystem of secondary content (e.g. artist broadcasts, marketing campaigns, comments and likes etc) circulate on social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Drill music exploded in Chicago in 2011 as a way for impoverished young gang members to communicate with one another and turn the outside world’s fascination with the bleak extremes of inner-city life to their own financial advantage. UK drill artists have copied this model because it works with remarkable efficacy. More than ever, music has become a way for the most marginalised British young people to gain popularity, self-affirmation and livelihoods. As more UK drill artists get record deals, enter the music charts and gain brand partnerships, the genre must be viewed in terms of its growing audience, and the industry that helps to monetise it, as much as the success of its artists.
To study UK drill music is to study the impact of social media on human life. Understanding this equation is essential to understanding rising youth violence. Like adults warring or congratulating on Twitter, young people in Britain have at their fingertips a powerful opportunity that did not exist even fifteen years ago: the chance to like, listen and see others; to be seen, liked, and listened to at the click of a button. Equally, they have the chance to engage in negative forms of provocation. The rise of UK drill music reflects this spread of opportunity where it has been granted to young men affected by the overwhelming social forces outlined in the YVC report (poverty, domestic abuse, school exclusion, unemployment, etc).
However, treating UK drill and social media as synonymous in conversations about youth violence is problematic. Where social media technology should be the core focus, music has taken centre-stage. This distraction is misguided and dangerous, resulting in the criminalisation of creativity (and ultimately forced survivalism) amongst poor communities of colour. Evidence of this everywhere. Some of the most demonised and restricted UK drill artists (e.g. Skengdo & AM) are categorically not criminals, and yet they are treated and framed as such, which communicates frowning judgment to young people who might relate to their music or be inspired by their success. In my youth work I have held hundreds of conversations with vulnerable teenage boys who feel like they now cannot express how they feel to adults because of the way drill music is being blocked and dismissed by policymakers, police and educators. My fear is that an unnecessary preoccupation with music is further entrenching an entire generation’s shared anger and disillusionment.
Much more useful and just would be a rational focus on how technology is used and abused by all people. I view social media platforms much like a car: it is a technology that is potentially dangerous. Its autonomous use should require training to demonstrate ability and maturity. If not, people who are incapable of using it, or who are sensitive to its problematic use — those with low self-esteem and anxiety; those who are traumatised by normalised violence in their communities — are most likely to use it irresponsibly, to provoke and be provoked. They are the ones who are most likely to hurt and get hurt when digital interactions spill into real life as violence.
We must treat UK drill music’s preoccupation with violence as a product of the socially unequal and technologically advanced state of the world. This means accepting that it is problematic, and that in specific circumstances it fuels gang rivalries and a propensity for youth violence. But it also means refusing the temptation to see music as the problem, per se, and instead focusing on the way vulnerable, disenfranchised, actively excluded young people are partnering with technology to communicate and express themselves. UK drill — a rich, visceral, unforgiving cry for help with a mass global audience — provides an opportunity to learn about the roots of violence, as well as tap into solutions for empowering those who have been left behind. Solutions to violence can and must operate by harnessing such modern forms of cultural production for the better, not banning them or pretending they don’t exist.
Roadworks, an inclusive music education charity I founded in 2019, seeks to do exactly that. We deliver training for adult educators and work directly with excluded young people, using UK drill and rap as a point of engagement. We treat subcultural phenomena as tools to develop critical thinking, provide safe spaces for participants to speak their mind, collaborate in research, and ultimately make music that is true to their life experience without being dangerous to others or criminalised by the state. We teach academic subjects such as philosophy and sociology, and facilitate careers-skills workshops with experts from across the contemporary music industry. A responsible, savvy and fun use of social media practically underpins our entire method of fighting social inequality and providing meaningful opportunities to marginalised young people. We believe this methodology urgently requires critiquing and upscaling to respond to the current demands of youth disenfranchisement.
Ciaran Thapar is a freelance writer and youth worker