On New Year’s Eve 2017, three young men were stabbed to death in London. By the morning of the new year, another would be dead. Two of the victims were 20 years old. The others just 17 and 18. A few months later, on April 5, the British capital was rocked by the news that six more teenagers had been stabbed in the space of 90 minutes (The Times). The youngest victim in that deadly spree was just 13.
With knife violence rising, the city’s murder rate is now higher than New York’s. This year alone, London has been the site of more than 50 murders. Most of the victims, and perpetrators, are young, black males.
Knife crime isn’t particular to London. The UK’s latest Home Office homicide report shows a 25 percent increase in murders across the country over a one-year period ending in March 2017. Knives or other sharp objects are the most common weapon used in UK killings.
“The streets nowadays is cold,” said Hakeem Melbourne-Blake, whose 17-year-old sister, Tanesha, was shot from a vehicle driving in Tottenham, north London, in April (BBC). “Every other day, if it’s not a stabbing, it’s a shooting … tit for tat. It’s crazy right now.”
Drill life is real life
Why is gang and knife violence surging in the UK? Increasingly, London’s “drill music” scene, and the way it’s exploded across social media, has become a focus of criticism and blame.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has said platforms such as Youtube and Snapchat glamorize and amplify violence.“I’m sure it does rev people up,” she told the Times. UK Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, recently revealed a £40m strategy report that included a demand that social media companies such as Youtube and Snapchat shut down or restrict violent channels.
In February, the link between drill music and knife violence was made explicit when three south London men received life sentences for the stabbing murder of 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall. In sentencing 17-year-old assailant Daniel Simpson, a rapper who goes by the name of M-Trap o, a London judge specifically referenced the spectre of drill music leading to knife violence.
“Music was a big part of your life but it’s clear so was your absolutely chilling addiction to holding and using knives,” the judge told Simpson (The Guardian).
The link between artistic expression and “real world” behavior, of course, is grist for an ages-old argument. What kind of reaction can or should any expressive form incite?
Journalist and producer Andre Montgomery made the documentary “On Your Block” to dispel the notion that drill is a driver of violence.
“I wanted people to hear from the artists themselves whether they believe they’re a cause for the violence going on in London,” Montgomery told WikiTribune. “They’re all intelligent young men and they understand themselves, and they [feel] as if they’re trapped in a world of negativity. It’s only through music they see a way out.”
The consensus among the drill artists Montgomery interviewed is that the songs are only expressing “real life,” even if they sound violent.
From Chicago to London
UK drill is inspired by a style of trap music that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s with rappers such as Chief Keef. The term “drill” comes from the slang of 1930s Chicago gangsters who used the word to describe “drilling” victims with automatic weapons.
UK drill has evolved into a rap subgenre and distinctly London sound, blending murky beats with menacing lyrics describing gang rivalries and violence. Most drill artists are teenagers who live in impoverished pockets of London where, for many, violence is a way of life.
Videos are crucial to the genre. Unlike typical mainstream rap videos that often feature expensive cars and mansions, drill videos are shot in and around shabby council estates, takeaway chicken shops, or grubby streets. Despite their intensely local narratives, drill videos on Youtube can rack up millions of views worldwide.
For most, drill is not so much a glorification than it is a reflection of daily life. “Everyday I’m ready for war, they talk that talk never shot one, them man there’s work rate’s poor,” raps K-Trap, a leading drill artist.
“We rap about violence because we’re from a violent background,” LD, a member of pioneer drill group, 67, told the Evening Standard.
Some of the more modern groups to have emerged from this space are Silwood Nation, Zone 2, 1011, Harlem Spartans, Moscow 17, and BSide.
It’s not uncommon for rivalries to be hyperlocal, such as the one between Zone 2 and Moscow 17, both from south London. In December 2016, Moscow 17 released its diss track “Moscow March,” which prompted Zone 2 to film their response, “Zone2 Step,” on Moscow 17’s turf.
Though there’s more to drill than provocation, sometimes that is its primary function. West London group 1011 faced controversy when it mocked a deceased rival, Teewhiz, in one of their music videos. “Teewhiz got splashed [stabbed] and died, and I don’t feel sorry for his mum,” rapped 1011 member Horrid1 in 2017.
Lyrics in songs by 1011 and other drill artists are driven by authenticity. Indeed, rapping about real life events is thought to be the key to multiple views and “likes” on Youtube.
“You just know when someone’s chattin’ shit,” one London gangster told WikiTribune. “The more views [a video] has, the more it’s likely to be real.”
Driven by fear
In London, violence tends to be concentrated in less affluent areas. The majority of homicide victims in the London stabbings this year are from lower-class neighborhoods. Funding cuts to youth centers, police, and mental health services have pushed knife crime to the front of the austerity debate.
“It’s endemic of a much wider schism,” Tyre told WikiTribune. “[By] cutting the police at this point, alongside cutting off and trying to privatize the NHS [National Health Service] … and a million other factors, they’re all part of the same pie. I think it’s stupid and dangerous for us to separate these issues and talk about them in little tiny pockets.” Freddie Tyre, of Caius House, a charity based in southwest London, told WikiTribune. “With young people, they don’t have as much nurture or time with their parents. They’re not being funnelled toward education or a trade as strongly.
“It’s creating a cycle whereby we’re generating, I don’t know if I want to say, almost a feral pack on the streets, out ready to do what they need to do. It all stems from the fact that we really need to do something massively about the [lack of] opportunities young people have.”
“Austerity didn’t invent knife crime, but it is certainly contributing to the conditions in which it can thrive,” wrote Gary Younge in The Guardian. “‘Knife crime’ is a construct. It does not simply mean, as one might reasonably expect, crimes committed with knives. It denotes a certain type of crime committed by a certain type of criminal in a certain kind of context … one that also carries heavy racial connotations.”
Indeed, some of London’s police initiatives have been heavily criticized as institutional racism in action. The Gangs Matrix – the Metropolitan Police’s gang database – is comprised mainly of Black, Asian, and other non-white minorities who have no recorded criminal convictions.
Knife crime, and whatever association it might have with drill music, transcends gang issues. Most who carry knives aren’t even linked to gangs.
According to James Treadwell, a professor of criminology at Staffordshire University, “Knife carrying isn’t all gang-related, but young men’s increasing reliance upon knives and weapons is not just a media scare either – and it provides a grim glimpse into the fragile state of young male mentality.” (Conversation)
“Fear is a massive motivating factor in fronting things out, putting on a face of, ‘I’m untouchable, I’m this, that, and the other. I’m the baddest person,’” Tyre said. “Why? At the end of the day, whoever you are, no one wants to find themselves on the receiving end of a gun or a knife … I think there’s almost nothing but fear.”
GANG with a plan
Knife crime is nothing new in the UK. Created in 1988, Operation Trident remains one of the more notorious police initiatives to tackle gang violence. It’s criticized and mocked to this day. “Fuck Trident, we all violent, man back your city,” raps MizOrMac of Harlem Spartans.
Into this breach, a new London group has emerged, marching in solidarity for those who were killed to raise awareness around youth violence. Made up largely of former gang members, Guiding A New Generation (GANG) is working to educate and help young people escape gang life.
On April 16, GANG members were part of a panel in a public meeting in Tottenham, the neighborhood in which Tanesha Melbourne-Blake was shot. The meeting had a clear goal: foster community and find solutions to ending violence. Paramount to achieving that goal is a strong message of forgiveness.
Among the attendees was Dr. Mark Prince, whose son was stabbed in the heart and died after trying to break up a fight. Another was Robyn Travis, a former offender and author of Prisoner to the Streets. Both emphasized the importance of educating children about knife crimes at a young age.
“If you can change the mindset of the young people who think stabbing is cool, like I did, if you can get to them from a young mindset, I put my life on it that knife crime would drop,” said Travis.
“The question isn’t what made me reform. The question is what made me a prisoner to the street [in the first place].”
Generation… (maybe a section on marginalised young generation today?
Young people, at the end of the day, are impressionable and easily reflect their surroundings.