As The State Continues Its Censorship, We Need To Remember That Drill Artists Have Free Speech Too
Opinion

As The State Continues Its Censorship, We Need To Remember That Drill Artists Have Free Speech Too

By Saxon Norgard, Associate Editor 19 Feb 2019
Speech

South London Drill artists AM and Skengdo were handed suspended jail sentences for performing their song ‘Attempted’ at a concert in Camden in December 2018.

The Metropolitan Police alleged that, by performing the song and posting it on social media*, the pair had incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members and therefore breached an interim gang injunction imposed against them in August 2018.

The court agreed, sentencing them to nine months jail suspended for two years. In addition, the interim (temporary) injunction was brought into full force until January 2021.

This is the latest in a trend of escalating police action against drill musicians and the scene generally. The authorities argue that this type of censorship is necessary to prevent violence, but have they taken it too far?

What Is Drill Music?

Video Credit: GRM

Drill is a hardcore, aggressive style of Trap music that has exploded onto the UK music scene over the past three years. Originating in South Side of Chicago in the early 2010s, the genre gained momentum in South London in 2012 and a sub-genre, known as UK Drill, became known for it’s thumping beats, gritty visuals, and lyrics vividly depicting the lives of its street artists.

The lyrics are often explicit and violent, with many artists using their music to taunt rival groups and describe real-life acts of violence.

UK Drill’s unabashed lyrical content has been a significant reason for its exponential rise in popularity, but also a source of controversy. The lyrics are often explicit and violent, with many artists using their music to taunt rival groups and describe real-life acts of violence which they have witnessed or even taken part in.

Nonetheless, the genre is steadily breaking into the mainstream, with the recently released ‘Gun Lean (Remix)’ by South London rapper Russ being the first drill song ever to break into the UK’s official top 10.

How Are Drill Artists Being Censored?

Image credit: Pixabay.com

The injunction imposed against AM and Skengdo is a form of ‘gang injunction’, which may be imposed under Part 4 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 upon application by the police. If ordered, the terms of the injunction can be virtually unlimited in their prohibitive effect, for example preventing the individual from wearing certain articles of clothing or “using the internet to facilitate or encourage violence”. Crucially, as was the case with AM and Skengdo, the individual does not need to have committed a crime in order to be subject to such an injunction.

They have had to consider what they can and can’t say very carefully, and there are tunes that will probably never see the light of day as a result of this.

Ian McQuaid, Moves Recordings

Moreover, the injunction can be given full effect as an ‘interim injunction’ even before the affected party has had an opportunity to challenge it in court. Speaking to RightsInfo, Ian McQuaid – the head of A&R at Moves Recordings, the label to which AM and Skengdo are signed – said: “Once the police had announced there was going to be an injunction, the full weight of the injunction applied whether we were fighting it or not.”

In terms of the restrictive effect of the injunction on the pair’s ability to create music, McQuaid was blunt. “They have had to consider what they can and can’t say very carefully, and there are tunes that will probably never see the light of day as a result of this”.

In addition to targeted action against specific artists, the police have also taken steps to have drill songs removed from platforms such as YouTube. In May last year, it was reported that YouTube had taken down over 30 drill videos upon direct request from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. This seems set to continue into 2019, with insiders reporting a wave of new take-downs planned in the coming months.

A Qualified Right To Free Expression

Image credit: Unsplash.com.

Our right to free expression is guaranteed by Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention. It is a qualified right, meaning that our free speech may be restricted in such ways as are necessary to achieve certain legitimate aims – for example, the prevention of disorder and crime. Any such restriction must not only be necessary to achieve the aim, but also proportionate. 

The test for proportionality asks whether a less intrusive measure could be used.

The test for proportionality asks whether a less intrusive measure could be used to achieve the objective and whether a fair balance has been struck between the rights of the individual and the interests of the community.

The police’s argument is that restricting Drill artists’ ability to say certain things or perform in certain areas is necessary, to prevent gang violence. Whether it be through the glamorising of gang activity or the issuance of violent threats, they argue that there is a direct link between drill and violence. Others say that drill artists are simply recounting and expressing their life experiences and that it is other systemic problems – not Drill – that are causing violence.

A Step Too Far?

Image credit: Unsplash.com.

One concern with gang injunctions is their breadth and ambiguity, which can make it very difficult for artists to know when they might be in breach. “It’s still pretty vague what [AM and Skengdo] will get done for,” McQuaid says. “No-one thought they were going to get breached for doing ‘Attempted'”. This uncertainty can have a disproportionate effect on an artist’s ability to express themselves, forcing them to self-censor to a larger extent than may be necessary, to ensure they aren’t in breach.

The fact is people don’t talk about it because they don’t want to be stigmatised as gang members and they don’t want it to affect their future bookings.

Ian McQuaid

It is questionable whether these injunctions are really necessary to prevent criminal behaviour. For example, an artist who uses their music to intentionally threaten, abuse or harass another can be prosecuted under Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, without the need for an injunction. One could argue that further restrictions (by way of injunction) are necessary to prevent the normalisation of violence which could fuel crime; however such a link between drill and violence is presumptive at best.

There is also a misconception that only a few Drill artists have been subject to these restrictive measures. “Across London, any major drill artist that you know has, one way or another, [been subject to restrictions], whether it be gang injunctions or live shows being pulled,” says McQuaid. “The fact is people don’t talk about it because they don’t want to be stigmatised as gang members and they don’t want it to affect their future bookings”.

This in itself is problematic, as it forces artists to ‘keep quiet’ about the prohibitions they are subject to or risk jeopardising their careers. In a recent interview with Tim Westwood, West London rapper Fredo seemed hesitant to answer a question on the issue, and said: “It’s such a touchy subject, I can’t even talk about how they are f***ing with me because they will f*** with me more”. Without artists themselves being able to discuss the censorship they face, any sort of informed public debate is impossible.

“We haven’t looked to make any currency out of outlaw status, we don’t want to do that,” says McQuaid. “[AM and Skengdo] didn’t want to do it – they’re artists, not gang members – the police have left us with no choice but to engage, otherwise we would have definitely kept this quiet”.

*McQuaid says that it was another outlet that posted the video of the performance online, not Moves Recordings or AM and Skengdo.

About The Author

Saxon Norgard Associate Editor

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.