Whether on the radio, TV or even on the Greta Gerwig blockbuster Barbie movie, drill music has had a dominant year in every format. As one of the country’s most popular sounds, it has taken London, and international music markets by storm, helping launch careers of rappers including Central Cee, Dave and Headie One, who have all topped music charts in the UK.
The genre, a sub-division of rap, originated in Chicago, and moved over to London in 2012. With its thumping instrumentals and raw - often violent - lyrics it details the harsh realities of the artists’ lives. With artists regularly attached to particular estates and postcodes, correlations between their musical output and London’s death rate of young males to gang-related knife and gun crime have long been drawn. In 2021, London saw the record murder of 30 male teenagers aged between 14-19. The question of whether UK drill scene is simply chronicling the bleak truths for youths on London streets, or actually driving crime hangs heavy.
But hidden within the Metropolitan Police is a specialist team tasked with monitoring and removing drill music from the internet.
Never heard of Project Alpha? That’s precisely how they like to operate. Established in 2019, it is a specialist taskforce that’s part of the Metropolitan Police responsible for gathering intelligence from social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram – both private and open – with the aim of preventing gang crime. To date it has received £2.9 million in funding from the Home Office to help assist their removal of hateful or inciteful content.
So far, so reasonable. But the unit’s growing preoccupation with drill music – that distinctly London hip-hop subgenre that grew from the streets of south London in the late Noughties – reveals a darker side to the unit’s work, to monitor and remove content that may be harmful or inciteful. The Met’s close relationship with social media platforms means content can be taken down at a swift rate.
A recently released FOI request revealed from 2020 to 2022, the Met Police made 654 referrals to YouTube to takedown drill music/rap videos, with 635 removals approved. Details of the takedowns were not released.
This commitment to tackling ‘harmful content’ can be flawed, as with the case of UK drill rapper Chinx (OS). Hailing from the Regent’s Park Estate in Camden, the 25-year-old has been turning his life around through music after serving four years of an eight-year prison sentence for possession of a firearm with intent to harm.
This is the number of drill music videos removed by YouTube between 2020-22, following 654 referrals from the Met Police
In November last year, he dropped his track ‘Secrets Not Safe’, creating instant buzz online and gaining millions of streams. Shortly after, the Met issued a takedown request to Meta, the parent company of Instagram, which removed the track and the rapper's Instagram account. Scotland Yard argued that the track's content could lead to ‘retaliatory violence’. Chinx (OS) lyrics included: ‘Got eight for the hammer, I ate that sentence,’ referencing his release from prison.
Chinx (OS) appealed this decision to Meta’s independent oversight board, which overruled the decision. In a statement, they said: “Meta lacked sufficient evidence to conclude that the content contained a credible threat, and the Board’s own review did not uncover evidence to support such a finding”. The board added: “In the absence of such evidence, Meta should have given more weight to the content’s artistic nature.”
"They don’t really care about the genre or any of its positive impacts – they just use it as a scapegoat."
Chinx (OS) regained his Instagram account and the track was subsequently republished, though the initial takedown dented the momentum of the original release. As his popularity grew, the Met changed the terms of his probation, with the rapper required to give notification of any new release, and the lyrics, to the police.
So are we entering a new age of censorship? Ian McQuaid from Move Recordings, who has worked with artists who have had their material removed, says these videos are taken down with ‘opaque reasoning’ with artists given no right to reply, and this frequency decreases when they are signed and have the legal protection of a big label.
Operations around the Met’s Project Alpha are secretive, with often no dialogue between artists and police, and reasoning behind removals are scarce. McQuaid says the takedowns system disadvantages unsigned and emerging artists, as they rely on their material being posted through the mainstream YouTube channels. These up-and-comers won’t want to risk having their channels receive copyright strikes and ultimately removed for the sake of keeping up a video that receives a removal request.
"There are still issues being discussed about the concept of institutional racism within the Met Police so [it’s] important not to overlook that in thinking about what the Met Police says about a form of Black music."
‘If you’re one of the big channels with upwards of a million followers, several million subscribers, in some cases, you are not going to risk losing [them] because your channel gets taken down,’ says McQuaid. ‘You get three strikes on YouTube and you will lose your channel.’
In a statement, YouTube said of the takedowns: ‘We are deeply committed to helping music of all genres grow and thrive. While YouTube is a platform for free and creative expression, we strictly prohibit videos that are abusive or that promote violence. We work closely with organisations like the Metropolitan Police (and other local police forces) to understand local context. We’re committed to continuing and improving our work on this issue to make sure YouTube is not a place for those who seek to do harm.”
For the unsigned drill artists, though, these measures may be hindering their prospects, says Nick Eziefula, partner and music lawyer at Simkins: 'Knowing that an artist's video might get taken down might be a disincentive to the people that help contribute to or work on the video, or otherwise invest in it or pay for it to be released.’
Police scrutiny also follows drill artists in their live music opportunities, with popular drill music duo Skengdo X AM being prosecuted for performing their own track Attempted 1.0 at Koko Camden in 2019, which according to Index on Censorship, marked the first time in British legal history that someone was prosecuted for performing their own song. The duo, who were both 21 at the time, were convicted of breaching a gang injunction and sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.
The prosecution followed on from civil proceedings in 2018, made against the group. In those civil proceedings, the police applied for, and were granted, a gang injunction because the duo were members of a south London gang. Under the injunction, subjects are prohibited from directly inciting violence, with the judge ruling that by the duo performing ‘Attempted 1.0’, which was a fan-favourite track, they were in breach of this condition.
Joshua Malinga, known as AM, has spoken frankly about the gang injunction, telling the Guardian in 2019: ‘We didn’t contest the injunction because we couldn’t afford it – we were forced into a corner where we had to choose between our careers and freedom.’
Proceedings came at a time where the group were experiencing a wave of success, with millions of streams and sell-out shows, including a performance at Reading and Leeds Festival. ‘The police action affected them both musically and financially,’ he says, as he tells me any new material must now be sent to the Met for approval before its release.
Four years on, he still questions the process. ‘From the beginning, I don’t think it was fair the way that injunction was put in place; it limited us a lot,’ he says. AM claims the police have never spoken to him about his musical content. ‘We’ve never spoken to [the police], everything was done through the courts,’ AM says, adding, ‘they never gave us a clear example of what inciting violence was’.
More worryingly, lyrics and music videos are increasingly being used as evidence of bad character in court cases. In 2022, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that UK drill music videos can be submitted as ‘admissible evidence for a jury to consider’ if they can link gang-affiliated suspects to crime. Research from The University of Manchester’s Prosecuting Rap project found rap evidence, lyrics and music videos were used in more than 70 trials from 2020-23. The number stood at only 67 for the 15 years from 2005 to 2020.
Criminal defence solicitor Amjid Jabbar, partner at Stokoe Partnership Solicitors says: 'If this type of evidence is going to be used, there really should be some form of oversight in relation to how it’s adopted.’ He adds that use of language is ‘a constantly changing area’, explaining: ‘As most kids do, a lot of it is simply about rebellion for rebellion’s sake, people don’t actually mean what they say.’
AM also expresses concern with the way drill music’s lyrical content is taken literally: ‘Lyrics should not be taken at face value. I feel like everything should be taken with a pinch of salt,’ he says, noting artists often exaggerate stories in content. ‘Some of the stories I tell aren’t even my stories.’
Many will wonder whether race plays a part in the clampdown on the genre, with authorities historically zeroing in on predominantly Black genres of music, including jungle and grime. Eziefula, who studied the Macpherson report, which addressed findings from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, adds: ‘There are still issues being discussed about the concept of institutional racism within the Met Police so [it’s] important not to overlook that in thinking about what the Met Police says about a form of Black music.’
Back in 2021, findings from a controversial think-tank report linked drill music to a rise in killings in the capital, with media outlets presenting a similar, calling drill ‘the demonic music linked to [the] rise in youth murders’.
Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley echoed this view in a 2021 Policy Exchange report on knife crime in London, blaming drill music for “perpetuating violence and destroying lives among young Black Londoners.’ The same report went on to claim ‘analysis […] found that of the 41 gang-related homicides in 2018, at least one third were directly related to drill music. This figure was 23 per cent in 2019.’
Some observers argue that evidence of this claim is largely absent, leading to an open letter signed by 49 leading academics who dismissed the report as racially insensitive, a recurring theme in the Met Police’s handling of Black music. It caused Form 696, a controversial risk assessment form that once asked venues to detail the ethnic groups of audiences attending shows that featured DJ’s or MC’s, to be scrapped in 2019.
Jabbar raises the issue of the demographics of those who may be involved in Project Alpha, which determines what content constitutes harmful material. ‘How many people in that unit are from an ethnic minority? And how many are under the age of 30?’
The Home Office has responded to the concerns around drill music. A spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to protecting freedom of expression but are clear causing or inciting serious violence and other serious crimes is not acceptable. In these instances, we expect social media companies to proactively remove harmful content and take steps to prevent it from being uploaded. The Online Safety Bill includes priority offences for content that incites violence and threats to kill.’
The Metropolitan Police also responded in a statement to The Standard. ‘The Met works with many social media platforms to identify and remove content which incites or encourages violence; it does not seek to suppress freedom of expression through any kind of music.
‘The Met asks social media platforms to consider taking a robust and rapid approach to removing content which is flagged as being harmful ie likely to provoke/cause real-life violence. It is down to the social media platform to make the decision to withdraw the content and make the originator of the post aware. Where possible officers will take action against individuals creating violent content and officers will work with the CPS in order to apply existing law to tackle relevant offences. We do not want violent content leading to violent actions.’
"How many people in that unit are from an ethnic minority? And how many are under the age of 30?"
The Met’s view is not shared by drill musicians, though – they see the genre as a form of expression that allows them to channel some of the harsh realities of life, and make a living. For artists like AM, this level of scrutiny is frustrating: ‘Nowhere in our music do we instruct people to do anything,’ he says, and asks: ‘Why is it fair for me to live that experience and not be allowed to talk about that experience?’
AM concludes: ‘They don’t have a problem with these things happening to people, they just wanna hide it away. They don’t really care about the genre or any of its positive impacts – they just use it as a scapegoat.’