Trying to draw a correlation between music and behaviour is nothing new, with “aggressive music” previously being used as a scapegoat in tragic situations. A misunderstanding and fear of the scene has led to grime being labelled as negative, aggressive and artists being targeted by the press and mainstream media as catalysts of isolated incidents. In the summer of last year, Stormzy infamously called out LBC Radio (“LBC’s tryna’ black ball me, and tryna’ blame your boy for knife crime”) on his GSAP track ‘First Things First’. The line being a direct response to a caller on the Shelagh Forgarty show who asked if grime was to blame for the rise in youth violence. When asked for his response to this, Stormzy’s reply was both measured and scathing in equal measure;
“For someone to say that Grime music is the reason for the country’s knife crime epidemic, that is wild, how do you even get there? Our truth and where we come from is so different, I don’t even expect the world to get it.”
Violence in London has seen a spike over the past four months, with over 60 fatal stabbings and shootings in the capital this year. While this statement is no easy read (and not an easy one to write), it forces us to take a look at how we have reached this point. The topic of youth violence may currently be leading the headlines, there is an undercurrent of problems and a catalogue of mistakes that have pushed the situation to what we have in front of us today.
The latest genre under the microscope for its influence on British youth is Chicagan import ‘Drill music’ known for its aggressive lyrics and brash beats. Featuring in the The Sunday Times under the headline “Drill, the ‘demonic’ music linked to rise in youth murders”, it is branded anti social and “ultra-violent”, with journal article ‘Gangs, music and the mediatisation of crime’; suggesting why drill should be seen as dangerous, and linking the glamorization of guns and gangs to a sense of power and authority that young people could easily take on face value.
But what many studies and articles seem to miss is exactly why this music is the way it is. When so many young people experience cuts to funding that affect their schools, youth centres, housing and benefits, their creative output is usually a reflection of their socio-economic setting, angry at the system which has displaced them. Fraser Myers explains it in his piece ‘Another Moral Panic About Rap’, stating “Moral panics over certain music genres feed a narrative that all social problems can ultimately be explained and treated at the level of the media and culture”, and in an interview with Good Morning Britain, Lethal Bizzle shifts the perspective, saying: “there’s a bigger agenda than just blaming the music because there’s nothing that’s going to change if we don’t find the real solution.”
Between 2010 and 2016, youth services were cut by £387m and the real issue that we need to address are young people growing up surrounded by extreme levels of inequality and perceiving a lack of decent employment opportunities that will enable them to live with dignity and respect. At the end of last month, members of the London music community, the city’s youth workers and local journalists came together for an “evidence session” for the Youth Violence Commission. Jasmine Dotiwala, a Channel 4 journalist reinforced the impact of governmental decisions and recent cuts and said the unwillingness to not see that these cuts are related to youth violence comes from a “privileged” position.
“There’s a whole generation of young people who have been simply been abandoned [by the government and society]. It’s really easy to blame youth culture and media and music, but it’s not the answer.”
Gentrification in London has led to feelings of insecurity and displacement among young people with displacement in particular establishing a series of risks for youth ranging from families forced out due to rent increases or evictions, the loss of play areas and social networks, and disruption to education. A report by London Youth in 2017 states that young people are not only aware of the disparities in wealth across the capital but what this means for their ability to continue to live in communities they have grown up in.
Another variable that has to be considered is the lack of funding across the youth sector, with many schools administering harsher punishments because they simply cannot afford to fund pupil-referral unit places. Young people with mental-health and behavioural issues are the most at risk with only 25% who need support, actually receiving it. It has also been estimated that an almost £400m reduction in council funding has led to more than 600 youth centres being closed since 2010. This does not always work with young people’s practices of re-appropriation and play, as they fluctuate between the formal and informal use of space. At times stigmatized as ‘anti-social’ for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, “a discursive landscape surrounds some young people that generates tension between place design and how it is actually imagined and used”, and it is this disengagement that leads to a distrust of authority and a lack of identity, further alienating young people from their communities and perhaps their support networks.
Speaking in an article for The Guardian earlier last month, UK artist Abra Cadabra highlighted that not only is drill music not harmful, but is used as a form of expression to speak about their environment; “Our art is imitating our life, not the other way round”. Grime has shown every other genre that is out there, especially at an independent level, that it’s about using the tools available to you to share your story. The very nature of the UK music scene is built on a DIY culture, built on the desire to succeed and coming together of friends, families and communities to create. But while the growth of social media and YouTube has made stars of younger artists and given them a platform, a sustainable industry for young people to invest in would help to build a stable future. Independent distribution platforms such as Ditto have brought money right to the grassroots, affording the scene more creative freedom than ever before and helped UK rap to break out of the pigeonhole it had been put in by the wider music industry. Author Jeffrey Boakye touches on how grime is constructed through themes of neoliberalism and self empowerment, and individual merits via competition, but still “operates as a deeply collegiate scene built of collaboration, shared creative energy and common values”.
The idea that music can serve as an outlet for young people is an important one. Only by understanding the key messaging of police brutality, institutionalised racism and a resignation to life in a system that is not balanced in their favour; can we seek to engage and make meaningful change. An article in The Financial Times titled ‘Can grime help heal London’s divisions?’ suggests that grime can be used to push for change, and may have ultimately played a pivotal part in Labour’s success in the 2017 general election. Using a national platform like The Brits gave Stormzy the opportunity to take aim at PM Theresa May and now infamously ask “Where’s the money for Grenfell?”, a question that had previously gone unanswered. Grime has always held an honest mirror to society and now, as the genre has matured and taken note of its surroundings, it serves not only as a vehicle for discussion but also for resolution.
“Perhaps grime is much more than simply a frustration vent for urban London. It just might be audio healing for the millennial generation”
While this does sound like the ideal – that our music scene can be used to help build bridges, it takes actual and physical efforts to make this happen. A number of artists have used their art to help educate, whether that be the aforementioned Stormzy aiming to dispel myths around male depression or Dave candidly talking on relationships and violence in his earlier years. J Hus, a previous victim of knife crime, pledged to put distance between his past and now and has spoken out about the impact of youth violence and the power music can bring. Akala spoke on Question Time about the lack of opportunities offered to young people and the incentives that should be made to promote aspiration and entrepreneurism.
Studios have been set up to aid young aspiring artists to have somewhere to hone their craft and online platforms are encouraging and assisting young people into previously inaccessible industries (video production, sound engineering, photography, advertising, video directing). This is one part of the scene that doesn’t get airplay – while The Times will happily call out Tim Westwood out for “profiting from gangs”, they fail to highlight the exposure he is giving these groups and a platform from which to express themselves. Westwood clap back at The Times was simple but effective; “These artists are rap groups, not gangs”.
With the headlines never looking to go away, we must take it upon ourselves to learn and in turn, help to teach others. Charities and third sector organisations have been set up with this in mind, aiming to educate young people about the consequences of choices, so they stay safe and away from crime. This could be done through showing them how to make positive life choices, putting them in contact with proactive role models and raising self esteem. The Ben Kinsella Trust, Inspire, St Giles Trust, London Youth all provide valuable services which are looking to help, support and give worth to young people. In the aftermath of a fatal stabbing in Newham, East London, the local community came together to pledge their time by doing things such as run youth activities or offer work experience to young people from the borough. On a national scale, Sadiq Khan has launched a £15m Young Londoners fund for projects to tackle causes of youth violence and knife crime, emphasing the need of community support;
“I refuse to accept that nothing can be done to stem the appalling rise of violent crime we are seeing across the country. Community and grass-roots projects play a vital role in tackling the causes of violent of crime within our communities, and giving more young Londoners the skills, support and aspirations they need to turn away from crime and fulfil their potential.”
While the labelling of our genres is nothing new and authorities and systems will never fully grasp the essence of the scene, the time has come for blaming to stop. In truth, if assistance and guidance is not being given by those in power, then we must look inwards to succeed. Who better to teach the next generation of young people then those who have already been through the system and learnt a valuable lesson. The scene was built from the ground up by young men and women who wanted more and were patient, resilient and confident enough to succeed. Factors of poor housing and environment and lack of support were less of a deterrent but a power that was harnessed. So instead of preaching to young people on what’s right and what’s wrong, we should be helping them to want more…