Why criminalising drill music highlights failings at the heart of the UK government

With local authorities, the police and central government falling short, labels like Finesse Foreva are stepping in

07.05.20 Words by: Saoirse Ní Scanláin

It’s a busy afternoon in Finesse Foreva’s Croydon office as the label’s co-founder TK, fresh off a plane from the US, welcomes me in. His phone rings as we sit down; French Montana has jumped on one of the latest drill beats by Finesse Foreva’s homegrown producer, JB104. It’s a big link-up. TK affirms: “We just need a hit, innit”.

It’s been a long two years for the genre of drill – inarguably the sound of the UK streets right now – with no shortage of uphill battles. More than once, the scene has found itself in an aggressive line of fire from the police and the wider establishment who, armed by the media, have at times appeared hell-bent on hollowing the drill scene from its core. Following the death of Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton in early 2018, Cressida Dick, commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police stated live on LBC radio that she believed UK drill was directly linked with the rise in knife crime and youth violence in London, “glamourising violence, serious violence, murder, stabbings… It’s obviously connected with this recent attack in London.”

Criminalising the genre in this way, the Met used superficial measures therout to tackle the increase in violence by policing drill. Blaming the music for the problem, the Met forced the removal of drill videos from Youtube, while malleable policies such as court-issued gang injunctions were used to restrict the activity and movement of a number of artists, so far as to monitor their studio time, touring and record release dates. The act of downloading drill music online was included as a surveilled activity in the Met’s ‘Gangs Matrix’, a dataset for the predictive policing of gangs.

Finesse Foreva are no strangers to Britain’s restrictive and matrixed bureaucracy. In early 2019, label artists Skengdo and AM were handed suspended sentences for performing one of their songs at a show in London. The sentencing was unprecedented and met heavy criticism in the music scene internationally, but the Met rigidly maintained that the performance had breached a gang injunction. When we spoke last summer, label co-founder and manager to Skengdo and AM, SK, explained that even in the months after the sentencing, the police remained vague about their reason for issuing the artists with gang injunctions in the first place. “It’s deeper than rap,” TK emphasised at the time.

Government policy has avoided action to tackle the discrimination and structural issues caused by years of austerity, which colour drill’s dark, nihilistic lyrics. Responding to censorship last year, Krept and Konan’s ‘Ban Drillhammers home that “Where we’re from, you know how hard it is to better yourself / Upper class won’t understand ’cause you inherited wealth.” With few financial opportunities and concentrated rates of knife crime, the emotional burden takes its toll, often from an early age. Upcomer TeeZandos shares in ‘Need Focus that she wasFourteen when I first chilled in a bando [a trap house] / Fifteen years when my blade got swung” and AM on ‘Macaroni‘ raps: Active but inside I’m very lonely / Losing my loved ones, they’re dying slowly.”

While frontline numbers in the Met have actually remained stable since 2010, in-house support staffing took a devastating blow, reduced from just over 3,600 to around 1,800. These cuts have limited the Met’s capacity for valuable resources such as research, community outreach, consulting and cultural training which ensure fair and informed policing. Six hundred youth centres across the UK have closed since 2010, while Conservative policies have forced working class and non-white communities to fend for themselves. Beyond policing and structural issues within the Met, the challenges the drill scene in London has faced reveals the ongoing cultural, economic and social barriers faced by non-white and minority communities in Britain.

“There was no opportunities at the time. There was no help… We had to do it off our own backs.”

A vibrant and passionate hub for the output of progressive drill in London’s outer borough of Croydon, Finesse Foreva was born out of a distinct lack of opportunity and support for working class, black youth in their community. TK explains: “There was [sic] no opportunities at the time. There was no help… We had to do it off our own backs.” The co-founders went into debt to get their project off the ground, and although having built something in line with their own council’s community development schemes, have received no funding or public support to date. “If we had a little bit of help from the government we’d be able to do so much more,” TK remarks. “Right now, we’re sitting in an office, it’s just you and me. If we had an apprenticeship fund, we’d be able to hire young people. It’s quite frustrating actually.”

In an experience not exclusive to Croydon, Finesse Foreva share that they are continuously ignored despite relentless efforts to act as a source of upward mobility for young members of their community. “Nobody even hits you back, or asks you to come in for a meeting,” TK says. Stepping in where the local authority won’t or can’t, local initiatives like Finesse Foreva aim to fill the gaps left by a decade of Tory rule. “If you think about what we do,” suggests TK, “…we do what the council should be doing. Giving young people a safe space, education in other curriculums, skills in the creative industry. But we are only able to do that on such a small scale ‘cos the funding just isn’t there.”

“If you were to ask some of the people in the councils: ‘Name five things a young person is interested in,’ they probably couldn’t tell you.”

Much like within the police, cuts and structural problems have left local councils either apathetic or ignorant to the needs and wants of the communities they are in place to serve. TK adds: “They aren’t bothered to get connected. If you were to ask some of the people in the councils: ‘Name five things a young person is interested in,’ they probably couldn’t tell you.” Bureaucracy and red tape have dissolved many important relationships between the council and independent initiatives, particularly when key community members are not represented in the council taskforces. “It kind of hurts as well, innit,” TK states, “people say there’s all these wonderful people to help you, but in reality there isn’t, unless it’s gonna benefit them.”

Finesse Foreva continues to grow, securing international collaborations from Ireland to the US, running a music production camp for young people and exploring afroswing and R&B through artists on their roster like West London’s S1. Still, they, along with many others are faced with an effort to transform their increased exposure into genuine financial support. “People speak about the good work we do. But you’re telling me not one person in power has watched our interviews and thought, ‘Let me reach out and help make a difference’?” asks TK. 

Although policy is yet to experience a shift to introduce protections for cultural products like drill music, Labour MP Diane Abbott and other activists continue to push for fairer policing and protections for the genre as it continues to thrive and evolve. Finesse Foreva explain that their genuine commitment to their community and desire to professionalise their industry keeps them motivated. “We wouldn’t have got this far if we didn’t have a purpose and willingness. We show that there’s another option than just being on the block every day,” TK remarks. “Our life speaks for itself… It makes youngers believe, ‘If they can do it, I can do it’.”