It is not unusual for teenagers in London to be excluded from school for possession of a knife. In cases I know of, boys have armed themselves after receiving what is known in playground whispers as “the drop”: a threat from a rival group, communicated over social media. When a young person’s education is interrupted like this, it raises difficult questions. Could it have been prevented? How are knives becoming normalised among children? What role is social media playing?
Two young men were stabbed in Camden, north-west London, on Tuesday evening, adding weight to the ongoing tragedy of youth violence whose momentum has carried into 2018. Last year 39 children and teenagers were stabbed to death across the UK, the most in a single year since 2008; roughly half of these took place in the capital. The killer of Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes last year was enraged about being disrespected online. This fact opens a window worth interrogating: while a necessary public debate on knife crime is beginning to take place, so far it has overlooked an important way to study this complex problem – the intertwined phenomena of social media usage and underground youth culture.
UK drill music – an aggressive type of rap whose lifeblood is its capacity to be intensively shared over social media – is colonising the digital airwaves and imaginations of teenagers. Conceived in Chicago, before cross-pollinating via the internet to the social housing estates of south London, it is now normal for British artists – like 67 (“six-seven”), Loski or SL – to achieve millions of views on YouTube. For many disenfranchised groups of young men in particular, drill is the soundtrack to local life.
In drill’s lyrical content, embedded within artists’ bleak commentary about inner-city life, exists a vocabulary used to talk about the prevalence of violence and knives in their community. “Dip”, “ching”, “splash”, “chef”, “wet”, “juice” and “poke” are all words use to describe stabbing. To make someone “go swimming” is to stab them (so that they swim in their own blood); to “go fishing” is to go out looking to stab “opps” or enemies. Where older variances of music might have referred bluntly to using a weapon – such as grime in its earlier days – drillers talk in detail about rituals like cleaning their knives with bleach, taking a knife from their mum’s kitchen, or having to throw out their trainers after soaking them in blood.
Groups of UK drill artists tend to form out of young people living in the same housing estates, with territorial wars that exist simultaneously on the microphone, in the comments of YouTube videos and in daily life. This fierce tenet of its musical culture has helped to carry the genre to where it is today, energised by an exponentially growing online presence and loyal following of fans eager to keep up to date with the drama.
I have on multiple occasions heard boys as young as 12 excitedly discussing the “numbers” or “scoreboards” of local drill collectives, as they compare how many stabbings various members have allegedly committed. The intelligence feeding this speculation is mostly shared over Snapchat, in digital isolation from the attention of adults. This, in turn, allows some youths to sustain a feared reputation without even leaving their bedroom.
Drill thus presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum. On the one hand it is a reflection of the harsh social environment its artists are forced to inhabit. This is plagued by a bleak, race-to-the-bottom mentality that requires carrying a weapon and dealing drugs to feel secure. Plus, any drill crew requires videographers, social media marketers, managers, producers, as well as authentic MCs, to ensure content can hold the attention spans of fans ready to click “Up next” on YouTube. Behind the scenes, the music therefore demands a creative adaptiveness and technological savviness, and it has quickly become a commercially viable, DIY route out of poverty for the people making it.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the prevalence of drill music – its videos, its turf-wars, and artists’ balaclava-clad, road-bound lifestyles – is further giving life to and amplifying aspects of a violent reality. It is not unreasonable to argue that in some cases it has contributed towards glamorising, or at least normalising, the knife-violence it repeatedly talks about.
This debate arose in January when I attended an all-party parliamentary group roundtable discussion on knife crime hosted by Sarah Jones MP, alongside representatives from YouTube, Facebook and the regulator Ofcom. I have no doubt that in the coming months social media companies will be held to account for the violent content they are ultimately profiting from. It is promising that this sort of multiparty, multi-agency approach, which has aimed to dig deep into the components of youth violence – such as considering Scotland’s successful model of turning it into a public health issue – is finally being pursued at a policy level.
But one of the main conclusions I took from the discussion was that no matter how much we try to account for modern trends, they ultimately remain secondary to the root of the problem: the neglect that our young people are being shown. Studying these aspects is crucial, but to expend our energy blaming them would be misguided.
I am not apologising for the potential influence of violent social media content on the impressionable minds of young people. In fact I believe we must examine all relevant environmental pressures more deeply than we currently are. But if a boy who has barely entered his teens feels moved to bring a knife into school, that is our societal failure – as parents, citizens, educators and policy-makers – not his personal one, nor that of the music he is listening to.
Source: The guardian