Last year, 16-year-old James Bascoe-Smith was stabbed near his home in south London. From his wheelchair, Bascoe-Smith testified at the Old Bailey about his life-altering injuries. The jury was told his attack may have been provoked by an online drill video, making him an “innocent bystander” in a raging gang war. Fortunately, he did not join the list of 30 teen homicide victims in London in 2021—a record figure. The story of Bascoe-Smith is a tragic but all too common one. Every week opens a new wound in the hot-button issue of knife crime and drill music in the capital. Like all ‘chicken or the egg’ questions, the causal connection between drill and crime is debated. Regardless of the answer, music censorship is a misguided solution to London’s knife crime epidemic.
Music has always sparked moral outrage. In the 1960s, rock was denounced as a radical, unChristian influence on America’s youth. The War on Rock reignited in 1999 when the Columbine High School massacre spurred a conservative reaction against metal, goth, and emo rock. Over the years, similar accusations of glamorizing drugs, sex, and violence were echoed against gangsta rap and hip-hop. In 2017, Fox News reporter Gerlado Rivera famously claimed, “Hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism.” And just last summer, lyrics written by rappers Young Thug and Gunna were used to convict them on racketeering charges. Meanwhile, House representatives debated proposals to render song lyrics inadmissible in court. In Britain today, a similar debate is being played out.
The new target of outrage is drill music, a Chicagoan subgenre of hip-hop that crossed the pond over the last decade. UK drill is defined by its ominous beats and raw portrayal of street life, which sometimes veers into graphic accounts of violence. The genre has been politicized in debates over knife crime—an “epidemic” that kills almost two Londoners a week. Unlike many news stories in the UK, both the conservative-leaning tabloid press (e.g. Daily Mail) and broadsheet “quality press” have engaged in fearmongering; in 2018, a widely-circulated Sunday Times article labelled drill “the ‘demonic’ music linked to rise in youth murders.” A controversial Policy Exchange report argued that over 25 percent of London gang murders are linked to drill, which the report alleges is a cause of revenge killing—a common theme in the style’s violent lyrics and direct threats. In response, prominent criminologists signed an open letter dismissing the report as baseless and racially insensitive.
The debate has sent shockwaves across the fashion, music, and entertainment worlds. Big name brands like Adidas have come under fire for sponsoring convicted artists, as the sportswear giant launched an ad campaign with rapper Headie One just months before his imprisonment for knife possession. Despite his major commercial success, Headie One remains entangled in an explosive north London gang war. While he maintains that drill is not the root cause of gang violence, other rappers have acknowledged the connection. Speaking on crime, drill rapper Incognito confessed, “You’ve got to put your hands up and say drill music does influence it.” Shortly after making these remarks, Incognito was himself stabbed to death. With the instant and viral reach of music videos, drill is a plausible accelerant to gang violence and may provide a commercial incentive for knife possession as a means of demonstrating authenticity to an online audience.
This does not make censorship the solution. The close partnership between London’s Metropolitan Police (Met) and YouTube is particularly troublesome. Since 2018, hundreds of drill videos have been removed at the request of the Met, which aims to “carry out ‘profiling on a large scale’” on males aged 15 to 21. This government intervention not only infringes on free speech and artistic license, but also verges on racial profiling. Drill aside, when law enforcement agencies censor art to influence public discourse, they wade into dangerous territory. While drill has influenced some past acts of violence, the Met are ill-equipped to differentiate between songs making genuine threats and those merely chronicling or dramatizing personal experience. Indeed, contemporary drill is a largely theatrical display that fabricates and plays into existing stereotypes to appeal to a substantially white audience. Most drill rappers have no connection to organized crime and merely leverage this image for commercial purposes. For a 92 percent white police force, the risks of “street illiteracy” and racial bias are especially salient when exercising sweeping powers of censorship.
Unlike gun crime in the United States, knife crime in the United Kingdom is a subject of bipartisan consensus; most agree it is a problem that needs addressing. Berated on soaring crime rates in the capital, Sadiq Khan has become the one of the most unpopular recent mayors of London. Unwise stopgap solutions include censoring drill music and expanding police stop-and-search authority. A better, more sensible approach treats knife crime as a public health problem. It would establish youth clubs in underserved areas, improve economic opportunity for London’s poorest, and implement prison reform to end the cycle of incarceration. Though drill has played some role in gang conflict, it is far from the root cause of the knife epidemic. A sensationalist press has dragged this problem to the forefront of a national culture war, distracting policymakers and the public from realistic solutions to knife crime. For this reason, we must drop the War on Drill.