The long and inglorious relationship between the police and rap hit a new low last week when a judge issued a court order banning five drill rappers from recording new tracks without police permission. West London group 1011 – the numbers refer to local postcodes W10 and W11 – were up on charges of conspiracy to commit violent disorder after being arrested last November for carrying machetes, knives and baseball bats. They initially claimed to have the weapons for use as props in a drill video, but later pleaded guilty. In addition to sentences ranging between 10 months and three-and-a-half years, the group received three-year criminal behaviour orders (CBOs, successors to the asbo), banning them from mentioning death, injury or rival postcodes in their songs and requiring them to inform police of any new music videos within 24 hours, and give 48 hours’ notice of any live performances. “This isn’t about us straying into the area of regulation or censorship,” said DCS Kevin Southworth, head of the Metropolitan police’s Operation Trident, somewhat implausibly.
The controversial CBO follows several months of heightening tensions over the relationship between drill’s violent lyrical content and real-world youth violence. Last month, at Scotland Yard’s request, YouTube removed more than 30 drill videos, and the head of Trident’s gang unit said he was seeking new measures to treat rappers like terrorism suspects: officers would no longer need to prove videos were linked to specific acts of violence in order to secure a conviction for incitement. Drill songs and videos have been cited as evidence of violent intent in several court cases in the last 18 months, and the Met has a database of more than 1,400 videos to “use as an intelligence tool”, according to the BBC.
The CBO ban issued to 1011 was condemned by Index on Censorship and widely described as entirely unprecedented. (Although it is notable that free-speech warriors from the right of the political spectrum have been rather silent.) Politicians’ tendencies to scapegoat “macho idiot rappers” for the ills of the society they govern – as Labour culture minister Kim Howells did in 2003 – are so familiar that they are often ignored, but direct police intervention and judicially decreed censorship are generally thought to be beyond the pale.
Yet the ruling was not unprecedented. Police have frequently successfully banned young people from making rap music, often unnoticed. In 2011, Stigs from Peckham road rap crew PYG was served with the UK’s first ever “gang injunction”, banning him from making any songs or videos that might encourage violence. Violating those conditions would have resulted in a prison sentence of up to two years. “There are films of people getting murdered and PlayStation games of people being shot in the head, but I get in trouble just for rapping about what happens on the road,” Stigs said then. “It is violent here so what else do they want me to talk about?”
From NWA to UK drill, rap has long been about documenting real-life struggles, but it has also been about performance. Serious descriptions of violence are mixed with obviously cartoonish and comical threats. Can we trust the police to determine which lyric is “glamorizing” violence, which is inciting it, and which merely describes it?
This scrutiny of drill is situated in a long history of police and judicial persecution of black music. The notorious Met risk-assessment form 696, which came into force in 2005, effectively shut down grime as a London club genre for a decade, depriving the artists and DJs of any realistic prospect of making a living. Before it was scrapped last November, the form plainly revealed police attitudes to racial profiling, asking: “Is there a particular ethnic group attending? If ‘yes’, please state group.” Sometimes the Met would just bypass form 696 altogether, calling venues, resulting in them canceling grime events citing spurious reasons..Or they would simply turn up. In 2007, for example, several MCs were covertly followed out of a No Hats No Hoods label launch at Rich Mix by plainclothes police, then stopped and searched. ‘We just thought: “These people came down for free, for our label launch,’” and felt quite shit about it,’ Pete Todd from No Hats No Hoods said. “Especially since we’ve done this night for two years, and done about 20 shows, and we’ve got a complete clean bill of health. I don’t think many nights in any genre could say that!” Jammer, an artist with a history of positive community work, and a mentor to young aspiring musicians, was equally unimpressed: “It’s a piss-take – I went there that night to work. They’ve basically stopped and searched me in my workplace!”
Solicitor Elena Papamichael has worked on a similar case to the 1011 drill ban, involving a teenage boy prohibited from making road rap by a gang injunction. She describes these restrictions as “highly problematic” and questions their practical implications. “The police are going to spend time trawling through YouTube videos? It’s dangerous, the idea that the police will determine whether something falls within the ambit of the prohibited activity.” She has no faith that these bans will reduce youth violence. “Part of the issue is this huge wedge between the police and certain communities, and this kind of policing will just widen that wedge. Young people already feel underprotected and are effectively resorting to vigilante justice because there is no trust of the police. On top of that, they see drill music as a way out [of youth violence]; what’s the message of measures like this?”
Papamichael points out that it is possible, with a CBO like that issued to the members of 1011, that someone could be criminalised for making music with violent content, even without any conviction for violence or any other criminal charge. “In usual terms, there’s a high burden of proof in criminal law, which acts as a safeguard on our liberty – and that’s eroded by this, and results in a significant widening of the reach of the criminal law, and its punitive consequences.” There is, she says, the possibility of a legal challenge via a judicial review using Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as its basis. “I think in this country we have a wide tolerance of artistic licence and banning drill doesn’t sit well with that.”
Ultimately, in spite of the media circus and police persecution – and in lieu of any serious measures to stop youth violence – new drill music is still coming out. “There are deeper problems going on in the communities, and until those problems are solved, the violence is going to keep going on,” Rapper AM from 410 crew told me recently. “The media, the government – the people at the top – they don’t want public attention on those negative externalities of the economy, they don’t want people to see what’s going on. But drill music is drawing attention to it. Their attitude is: ‘If we can shut down the music, everyone will feel safer.’ But that doesn’t mean [the violence] is not going to still go on.” Self-censorship was not an option, he said. “We’re going to keep pushing the music, until something is done about the actual problems.”