Already banned from one postcode, the duo received a prison sentence for performing Attempted 1.0 – making legal history. ‘We’re being criminalised for making music’, they say
Sheltering from a sudden downpour in a parked car just off Brixton Road, London, are two of British music’s greatest new talents, and now biggest outlaws: Skengdo and AM. A fortnight ago, the Metropolitan police announced they had secured a sentence of nine months in prison for the two 21-year-old drill rappers, suspended for two years, for breaching a gang injunction issued in August last year.
The nature of the breach? Performing their song Attempted 1.0 at a London concert in early December. The suppression of black music in the UK stretches back 100 years, but, according to Index on Censorship, this is the first time in British legal history that a prison sentence has been issued for performing a song.
The concert, at 1,400-capacity Koko, was the culmination of a sold-out nationwide tour, a celebratory homecoming gig performed in front of a diverse crowd of moshing fans. “We ended the year on such a positive note, we were so proud of what we’d achieved,” says AM. “We were just really excited about 2019.” Skengdo rolls his eyes. “And what a fucking start to this year. I just feel violated.”Advertisement
The backlash is already gathering pace: a forthcoming open letter signed by civil rights group Libertyand others calls the injunction “a threat to all our civil liberties”, that prevents young people from discussing “the reality of their lives with any hope of being heard.”
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, points to the long history of the authorities targeting music by people “far removed from those in power … The law already prevents individuals from directly inciting violence, but such wide-ranging bans go well beyond this. They are not the way to handle ideas or opinions that are distasteful or disturbing, and do nothing to address the issues that lead to the creation of this kind of music.”
Skengdo and AM’s suspended jail sentence marks a dramatic watershed in the young life of the controversial UK drill scene. The rap subgenre was born on the south side of Chicago in the early 2010s, built from monotone beats and glinting synths, usually with bleak, charismatically delivered lyrics. It has flourished since being discovered on YouTube by young rappers on the same London council estates that previously produced grime, and “road rap” crossover stars such as Giggs and Krept and Konan.
Drill was still underground at the end of 2017, but an unholy brew of violent lyrics and music videos, rising incidences of youth violence and media fondness for a pop culture scapegoat led to negative headlines in 2018. It would be naive to deny that there are connections between drill music and real-world violence: lyrics have been cited in several court cases, and the drill MC M-Trap was among those convicted of the murder of 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall in August 2017. As with moral panics over 90s gangster rap and 00s UK garage, “video nasties”, violent Hollywood films and computer games, the controversy concerns the muddy waters between cause and correlation.Advertisement
The song that landed AM and Skengdo – plus TS and Blackz, two fellow members of their Brixton-based group 410 – their unprecedented sentence is a dark, disarmingly catchy tune that was one of the best rap tracks of 2018. It features AM’s trademark deep flow describing alleged historic violent clashes with several members of rival crews Moscow17 and Harlem Spartans, both based barely a mile away to the north. AM taunts their members by name and sketches out cartoonish gang violence: “My big .45, it came with fries / I keep her close, my Valentine / Her range ain’t shit, it’s kinda wide / So if you lack you’re gonna die.” Three young men from these crews were killed in the space of a few months in 2018, but there is no suggestion – from the police or anyone else – that members of 410 were involved.
The Met nevertheless decided to classify 410 as a gang, with the injunction declaring that 410’s activities, “including but not limited to the production of drill music videos … have amounted to gang-related violence”. In a culture in which rival groups often call each other out on YouTube and Snapchat, the diss track was seen by the Met as unforgivably incendiary. The injunction will remain in place until January 2021, and prohibits the named 410 members from entering the SE11 postcode, 10 minutes’ walk from their homes. The Met had pushed for a ban on them entering SE1, too, which spans the South Bank area of the Thames, but the judge rejected this request.
The injunction also prohibits Skengdo and AM performing or broadcasting songs with lyrics mentioning those rival crews, rappers in those crews or even describing “intrusions on to any other gang or group’s perceived territory”, including their postcodes.
The Met’s claim is that in performing Attempted 1.0 at Koko, and sharing clips of the gig on social media, Skengdo and AM “incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members”, in breach of the injunction. The rappers’ management team point out that incitement to violence is a crime in itself, for which no charge has been brought – and that neither of the rappers has ever been convicted of a violent crime.
Their mood is a mixture of disbelief and defiance, along with reflection on how they arrived at this point. “We don’t have a lot of power, ultimately,” AM says. “I feel like the authorities have taken advantage of that. They have imposed something that will give us a criminal record just for making music. We didn’t contest the injunction, and the breach, because we couldn’t afford it – we were forced into a corner, where we had to choose between our careers and freedom. And the only way we could choose our career is by pleading guilty and trying to move on with making music.
“Our defence is that it’s not malicious, the song is already out and it’s a tour – people are expecting it, of course we’re going to perform Attempted. The police were waiting for any opportunity to say: ‘You guys are in breach.’ But there’s just no evidence that censorship is actually going to stop any crime. It’s a very, very weak argument.”
If it’s not going to stop crime, then why are the police doing it? “It’s PR for them,” says AM. “If you’ve never been to this area, and you know there’s a crime problem because you read about it, it makes the police look like they’re doing something.”
This case follows that of west London drill crew 1011, who in June last year, were handed a three-year criminal behaviour order (the successor to the asbo) banning them from mentioning rival crews in their music. On that occasion, the order was tacked on to a criminal conviction and sentence for carrying weapons they claimed were props for use in a video. As the human rights lawyer Elena Papamichael warned at the time, the next step could be censorship of artists who had not been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime. Indeed, as well as Skengdo and AM, there are yet more London-based rappers – who want to remain anonymous – who have been served with similar gang injunctions by the Met, explicitly specifying individuals, crews and postcodes they cannot rap about.
During the tabloid brouhaha over drill and violent crime last summer, the police launched a high-profile media campaign, with the Met chief, Cressida Dick, blaming drill for fuelling the rise in violence, and announcing they had persuaded YouTube to remove 30 music videos.
Det Supt Mike West says that the force had been looking at the connection between online videos and gang violence since 2015 and has developed a central database with more than 1,600 indexed videos used to gather intelligence. “The speed at which an online disagreement can escalate into violence, often very serious violence, is staggering,” West says. “Music role models and social media have a hugely powerful and positive impact, but when used in the wrong way the consequences can quite literally be deadly.”
As of 30 November 2018, the Met has secured the removal of 90 such videos from the platform. “We are not seeking to suppress freedom of expression through any kind of music,” West says. “We only ask for videos to be removed from social media which we believe raise the risk of violence.”
The artists take a different view. “The video censorship doesn’t make sense,” says Skengdo. “As soon as it goes down, fans will put it back up.” The official video for the offending Skengdo and AM track was removed from YouTube at the Met’s request last July – but the track is still easily available to listen to on the website.
What of the violent content of Attempted 1.0, in which the rappers recount alleged stabbings and provocatively taunt rivals? “Young kids spend all night playing Fortnite, playing GTA, where you’re actively making your character shoot over and over,” says AM. “We’re just talking about violent things that have happened. It’s clear to see which one is worse.” In fact, the lurid tales of violence in Attempted 1.0, designed to humiliate 410’s musical rivals, are arguably in the long tradition of diss tracks.
The BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Kenny Allstar says drill originally came about “based on what people in the under-represented sector were going through and about showcasing stories that people in the mainstream world wouldn’t understand. If you look back to earlier times like the punk era, young people who were being backed down decided to rise up and speak their mind.”
But the police interference has undoubtedly had an impact on the scene’s lyrics. “A lot of rappers are censoring their music now,” says Skengdo. “Even down to what they name their video, or what hashtag they use to promote it. They want to go under the radar. You put all that hard work into it, you gas everyone up – ‘Listen to my song!’ – and it gets taken down in 10 minutes. This is our livelihood, and it’s a serious financial loss to have a tune banned.
“It’s changed the way we have to write, the way we express ourselves, the things we say – and that in itself is a problem. We have to change the way we do things to accommodate the police, which is ridiculous. And that’s literally just the music side of things – there are food shops 10 minutes away in Oval that we can’t use, because it’s in SE11. My thing now is, how can I make people understand what I want to say, without breaching? That’s the technical part. You have to find an alternative.” He smiles. “Fortunately, we’re smart guys.”
Drill is now rapidly evolving, partly as a result of this pressure. Gun Lean by Russ has become the first drill track to make the top 10. With its poppy chorus and viral dance craze beloved of Premier League footballers, it marks a departure from drill’s menace and nihilism. The tune was a very deliberate attempt to reach new, mainstream audiences, Russ says. “I’m trying to be the Michael Jackson of what I do, I want to be that successful. I don’t do music to get attacked by the police or to incite crime. I want people to have a good time and dance.”
Russ adds that more of this party-orientated iteration of drill seemed inevitable, with rappers faced with a choice between censorship and mainstream success. “If you want to make music to incite crime, you’re not going to get anywhere. Whereas I’m hearing more musical variety, more different flavours, than ever before.” Skengdo agrees that increasing divergence from drill’s original template can only be a good thing. “Everyone’s putting their own sauce on it – that’s how it’s evolving. It’s good that it’s getting more mainstream interest.”
But these artists should still be free to lyrically reflect on the violence that also exists in their communities, free from censorship. Skengdo and AM are now having to censor Attempted 1.0 – with references to individual Harlem Spartans and Moscow members dubbed out – before submitting it to the Met for approval, hoping to perform it again.
“They haven’t drawn a line to say: ‘This is where the incitement is’, so what we fear is, we might perform the censored version, so we’re not even singing the lyrics, but the crowd’s singing them, and the police turn around and say: ‘That’s a breach.’ We’re in a sticky position. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t perform it, but this is our careers.”
Does it bother them that they have become poster boys for this battle for free expression? Wouldn’t it be better to just be known for their music? “Of course it would,” says Skengdo. “But we’re still making music – the grind never stops. If we stop now, then they’ve won, and that’s exactly what they want us to do: stop. We’re not going to accept our story being: ‘The police shut them down, and that was it for Skengdo and AM.’ We’re just getting started.”