By Alexander Holbrook
The crackdown on drill music is a contemptible violation of freedom of expression and is symptomatic of a police service in crisis.
When testifying to the US Senate on the regulation of lyrical content in music, Frank Zappa lambasted the proposed legislation as an “ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years”.
He then spoke the following caustic words about the opportunists in charge: “In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication.
“Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola. Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of “toilet training program” to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?”
In a final spiteful gesture, the PMRC slapped an Advisory label on Zappa’s next album, Jazz from Hell. The moral guardians seemed indifferent to the fact that this record contained no lyrics at all.
Oh, how we shook our heads at the arrogance of such proceedings. Yet I had been naïve in my assumption that such attitudes had evaporated.
The sentencing of Skengdo and AM for merely performing a song ought to appal anyone who values artistic freedom. Suspended sentences and guilty pleas be damned – this conviction is a national disgrace. The charge – incitement to gang violence – was in violation of a gang order. The men had admitted to gang membership in the past, but how the Metropolitan Police hoped to prove that the performance in question resulted in any kind of wrongdoing remains a mystery. No evidence to support the conviction has emerged, even in retrospect. Thus, in real terms, all these men have plead guilty to is making music.
Drill music is raw, and presents subject matter the middle class refuses to acknowledge. Salman Rushdie once said that “a good novel can bring you the news.” I grew up around the Manchester suburb of Prestwich. Bury New Road was a familiar name, but I possessed limited knowledge of its underbelly. That is, until I heard Bugzy Malone’s urgent and brilliant ‘Facing Time’. Since then, I take every opportunity to listen to grime and, by extension, drill. Art, among other things, is a means of self-determination. The artist reserves the right to base their work on their environment and their place within it.
The aroma of the tutting parent, the petty authoritarian, lingers around this hateful saga. Oh, we’d rather you not do that. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick takes to LBC and decries this music for “glamorising violence”. She says that media companies have “a legal and ethical obligation” to remove these videos. No, Commissioner. They don’t. Only if you’re all willing to enforce these rules across forms and genres, as the law of precedent implies. To install a bobby at the entrance to every new horror movie, or to impound all violent video games. To waste time the police don’t have.
Stupidest of all were the remarks of DI Luke Williams, of Lambeth and Southwark’s Gang Unit: “I am pleased with the sentences passed in these cases which reflect that the police and courts are unwilling to accept behaviour leading to serious violence. The court found that violence in drill music can, and did in this case, amount to gang-related violence.”
One can’t help but recoil at this condescending tone. If such talk – talk, mind you – amounted to “gang-related violence”, then the Met should sweep the streets clear at every London derby. Their statistics would justify their budgets until doomsday.
Which leads me to the crux of the issue. Drill is not responsible for an upsurge in murder or gang membership in London. That lies at the feet of eight years of government austerity. Wholesale cuts to youth services that gave inner-city youth a path from the streets. Cuts that sideline real police work in favour of the statistics culture. That make for overstretched schools and more students leaving with no opportunities. That force more to survive with less. It is ridiculous to assume that a political class that ignored the lessons of Grenfell would now begin caring about inner-city youth.
Rather, drill is, by means of its visibility, an “offence” which is easy to prosecute. With ever-shrinking numbers and resources, the Met is quick to throw any book it still can. Commissioner Dick is willing – whether intentionally or not, I dare not guess – to make herself and her force an enemy of free expression as part of the bargain.