The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.
But right here in the UK, artists are fighting the censorship of their work by global corporations bowing to pressure from and, arguably, colluding with the state and its organs. In May of this year YouTube, the video streaming platform owned by Google, succumbed to pressure from the Metropolitan Police and took down 30 music videos made by drill artists. The Met had been trying to persuade YouTube for almost two years to take down between 50 and 60 videos, alleging the material was contributing to the increase in violent crime on London streets.
This attack on the freedom of expression of musicians who make drill music does not stop at the removal of their videos from YouTube. Defendants convicted in criminal cases may in the future be banned from making music for a period up to three years if the offender is under 18 and indefinitely for adult offenders under criminal behaviour orders. Crucially, the prosecution can use evidence to support the making of an order that would not have met the strict rules of admissibility as in a criminal trial. The threat to freedom of expression goes further. The Met have expressed publicly their intention to push for new legislation, similar to anti-terrorism laws, that will criminalise the making of drill videos.
Drill is not for everyone. The lyrics are violent. There is liberal use of expletives. Descriptions of acts of violence using knives and guns are common themes. The images portrayed in the accompanying videos are similarly hard-hitting. Large groups of mainly young, mainly black men can be seen inhabiting the screen wearing hoodies and tracksuit bottoms – the uniform of the young in some sections of society.
Drill DJs are not, however, pioneers of explicit lyrics and violent images in music. The genesis of what is known as drill in the UK today sprang from a trap-style rap that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s. The hip hop of the 1980s and the gangsta rap of the 1990s are all part of the same family tree of poetic verse poured over a thumping beat. Drill is a close relative.
Nor is it new to blame this type of music for inciting violence. In the 1990s C. Delores Tucker campaigned against violent lyrics aimed at women in rap music. Then, as now, there was little direct evidence of a causal link between rap music and particular acts of violence. What the critics of this music fail to grasp is that the lyrics of this genre of music are inspired by, and not the cause of, the violence that infects the lives of many of these young men.