“Hillside Demons”, a powerful, hard-edged song from Lambeth-based drill rappers LD and C1, had attracted an impressive 200,000 views in a couple of days when it disappeared from YouTube. (A copy of the controversial video can at the time of this article publication be found here.)
Some rappers have to submit lyrics for official assessment
The disappearance was no accident. The Metropolitan Police leans on the platform to remove rap songs it believes promote violence. YouTube is perfectly willing to oblige in a harmonious union of state and corporate power.
The Met has been troubling rappers in the dark “UK drill” subgenre for years. Some rappers have been banned from performing at all. Some have to submit lyrics for official assessment. LD burst onto the scene, wearing his now iconic mask, after the maskless rapper Scribz received an ASBO which barred him from performing.
On the face of it, this is an outrageous infringement on the right to free expression. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols might have been banned from several shops but not on the orders of the authorities. Additionally, banning rap videos removes a chance for young, mostly ethnic minority men to earn a living from music instead of being mired in the gang lifestyle.
Still, let’s look at what the Met has to deal with. An otherwise interesting and substantive Vice article about the police censoring drill gives no indication as to why they might be interested in it in the first place. You get no sense of what the genre is. This is a common progressive response to underground culture: bemoaning hysterical responses to X, Y and Z without getting one’s hands dirty by engaging with them.
Drill is defined by moody 808s, skittish drums and downbeat keyboard notes — created by genuinely brilliant producers like Ghosty and M1OnTheBeat — but it is also defined by violence. Specifically, it documents very real conflict between criminal gangs.
Last month, the rapper AbzSav released “Tables Turn”. In the song, he mocked, by name, several young men who had been killed, one of whom was 15 years old. As if that were not grim enough, the music video featured AbzSav and his friends jigging about in t-shirts that displayed the dead men’s faces. The video lasted a day on YouTube before being removed.
To be fair, these antics were more or less blatant revenge for the similar treatment that has been directed towards the rapper’s murdered friend. His was not even the most egregious example of lyrical sadism. That dubious honour has to go to the Newham rapper Young Dizz, now in jail for kidnapping and torture, who rapped in reference to the death of 14-year-old Corey Junior Davis:
They took 2 of my tunes down ‘cuz CJ’s mum kept shedding tears/Someone tell her I don’t give a f**k that her son ain’t here/Ever since her son got dropped, their whole block ain’t done sh*t/And I was laughing when I saw that pic of a mum just bury her kid
Even a hardened civil liberties advocate would have to down a stiff drink and say a prayer or two before defending someone’s right to publically mock murder victims and their families. It is obscene for one thing, and as much as it would be absurd to argue that gang violence is a product of rap music — the former preceding the latter — it is not implausible to say that it exacerbates it. If nothing else, it would be absurd for a culture which is hypersensitive about provocative jokes and their supposed consequences to maintain that lyrics built around insulting the dead and threatening the living have no real-world effects.
Police censorship should not be arbitrary
To evade censorship, rappers obscure references to their opponents with sound effects like coin flips, sirens, record scratches and (most eerily) the noise of something that may or may not be water falling to the ground. In a recent track, LD made a kind of surreal art form of this by censoring almost as many words as he allowed himself to say (“Got down *ding*, same way, got down *ding*…I punched up *ding* and *ding* in Bricky and three roads down, chinged up *ding*”).
Sometimes this is not enough. “Hillside Demons” was thoroughly censored yet ended up being removed. I almost suspect that the police heard the line “governing Lambeth, f**k what the Met say” and had it removed in a fit of spite. Such a lack of clarity is a problem. To the extent that the police have censorious powers, they should not be ambiguous and arbitrary. We have seen in the case of hate speech how this enables escalating censorship.
Yet performers should take some responsibility. “They want us stuck,” protests LD. One can appreciate how frustrating it must be to lose income, without even having an avenue for an appeal (especially after spending thousands of pounds on a snazzy music video).
It would be great for more young men to escape the streets. Some of these rappers, LD and C1 prime among them, are very talented. No songs hit harder in the gym. But you can’t escape the streets while running your mouth about young people who have been murdered there. Morally, as well as commercially, you are as stuck as if you never left.
One could blame the fans. One could do it with some justice. Most of them probably live in towns like Bath and Warwick, where drill provides a soundtrack to their GCSEs, yet they love labelling rappers “wet”, “nerds” et cetera when they think they are not hardened criminals. Then, with depressing inevitability, they are disappointed, scornful and annoyed when rappers are arrested for murder or drug and firearm offences. Escaping the darkest aspects of the streets spiritually as well as materially would send a more inspiring message to their fans.
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