Notes of Dissent: Lessons from a Family Volvo
I’ve experienced my father’s affection for censorship in many places, but none more so than in our family car. It was an ancient, burgundy Volvo whose speakers had been so worn down that my father once tried to amplify the sound by taping cups over them. After migrating from Bangladesh to England during early adulthood, he quickly developed a love for British and US pop scenes. In the shower, he’d alternate between club bangers and devotional Urdu ghazals. On one occasion, my mother waited awestruck outside the bathroom door as my father finished singing “C’est La Vie” by B*Witched—an Irish girl group who shot to fame in the late 90s. Mum would often refer to his rendition as the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard emerge from a bathroom. Having propelled him to such a high standard of excellence, B*Witched became one of my father’s most loved bands. Unable to help himself, my father would often sing the lyrics mid-conversation:
Say you will, say you won’t
Say you’ll do what I don’t
Say you’re true, say to me
C’est la vie
Due to my father’s love of catchy, hip-swiveling tunes that brought the best out of his vocal range, we’d often find ourselves listening to pop radio stations like Heart, Radio 1, and Kiss—particularly when riding in the car. It was a risk, and a constant cause of anxiety for a dad who dreaded hearing songs that were less “family friendly,” as he saw it. It was as though he was afraid we would learn something, a word or a phrase, that would render us somehow less innocent. As though a deviant lyric could spread its contagion in our burgundy Volvo and somehow cause us to wake the next day not fully the same people. Listening to the entirety of “C’est La Vie,” I often wondered what virtues my dad intuited in a song that also included the lines, “I got a house with windows and doors, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” and, “hey boy, in your tree, throw down your ladder, make room for me.” In a 2013 interview with Digital Spy, B*Witched confirmed that “C’est La Vie” was all about sex: “Well you see the clever thing with ‘C’est La Vie’ was that it went over children’s heads, but the parents got the innuendos. It was perfect for everyone.” I think my dad made it perfect for himself, creating his own story out of the song, refusing everything but the chorus. Perhaps he took those lyrics in isolation, creating a scene of innocent companionship, mutual dependency, and trust.
Whilst my father extolled the virtues of B*Witched, his willful ignorance didn’t extend to tracks such as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Sisqó’s “Thong Song.” With unintended humor, my father would make a point of switching the station immediately after the most offensive line was sung. He couldn’t allow Nelly back into his car after the rapper let loose: “I was like, good gracious, ass is bodacious,” or permit Sisqo’s songs to play after the singer deemed it appropriate to claim, “Baby I know you want to show / Duh dun duh / That thong thong thong thong thong.” I never dared ask my father why he didn’t approve of these songs in particular. I’ve always felt that he was trying to shield our innocence, to preserve us in a world he could understand and negotiate.
Given the songs he would most often censor, it seemed he identified the chief threat as music that promoted casual relationships and extolled the virtues of sexual pleasure. My sister and I were in our early teens, ages where young people spend a lot of time thinking of ways to woo potential romantic partners—in my case through wearing brown jumpers and beige chinos. My dad would have felt threatened by the prospect of our lives being shaped by people he couldn’t influence, and in ways that would weaken his own influence over us. We often tested his boundaries by finding snippets of rap lyrics and casually integrating them into our dinner table conversations. Since these efforts went over our dad’s head, however, I’m confident he simply took us as idiots.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m a thirty-year-old man with a subscription to Gardener’s World, a National Trust membership, a selection of corduroy trousers, and two children who, to varying degrees, have discovered the gorging potential of YouTube. My nine-year-old daughter, the elder of the two, has unearthed some of her favorite bands via the YouTube suggestions bar. As she often copies the dance moves from her favorite music videos, I started to worry about the impact of her repeatedly encountering content which seems to infer that the role of women, and a measure of their success, involves attracting men. I don’t consider myself the kind of father who, fiber by fiber, strives to comb his children’s worlds free of perceived negative influences, but I want her to be unimpeded in pursuing an identity that has no need for male approval.
For the first time, I found myself confronted with my own questions regarding the merits of censorship. Social media has many faces and, as distant as they seem to me, I realized I must accept that they may as well be hanging on my daughter’s window latches, and that I can only be a remote accomplice in her attempts to understand them. The market doesn’t have a widespread inclination to present media geared towards creating better futures for its consumers; as a consequence, I was surprised to find myself wondering: could censorship provide more of a solution than I previously thought?
There is a tendency within British politics to hold music producers and artists responsible for various social issues instead of looking to confront the many roots of such problems. As I attempted to define for myself the negative effects of virtual content and who should be held responsible for its impact in the real world, I became swallowed by the rhythm of politicians and news corporations shaking their fists at a genre that has been targeted as a scapegoat in the broader question of censorship online. Within the last few months, British media groups have publicized a musical culture which has been touted by politicians as the cause of a rise in gang-related violence: drill music.
Drill music—a sub-genre of hip-hop—grew out of the South Side of Chicago during the early years of this decade. Within Britain, the drill scene is particularly prominent in the estates of inner-city London. The controversy surrounding the genre centers on the interplay between performances on social media and events in these neighborhoods, particularly the music’s seeming effect of exacerbating ill feeling and facilitating violence. Drill music stands apart, according to the media, because its presence online enables gangs to rapidly upload and disseminate “disrespects” towards a rival gang, often resulting in prompt violent retribution. The popular solution, offered by politicians and media outlets alike, is to ban such music from social media as a means of controlling the role of the audience in “egging on” rival groups.
As an Amnesty International speaker, I have argued passionately about the need to protect avenues of creative expression, however unpleasant I may find them. Fatherhood has complicated such thoughts and made me doubt myself at times. One night, after tucking my children into bed, I sat in our lounge and swatted up on drill groups. I was tapping my foot to the beat of Skengdo and AM’s “Jump that Fence” without taking in the lyrics when my daughter strolled in and asked me why I was listening to a rap about The Vampire Diaries. She’d overheard the line, “Two in your neck like Stefan, or it could’ve been Damon.” I was shocked by how oblivious I was to the media she’d been consuming. Whilst, throughout our childhoods, my sister and I were painfully aware that our father must have kept a mental record of everything that may have corrupted us, it hit me that my parenting style might be damaging in a different way. I had no idea my daughter even knew about The Vampire Diaries, a show I considered aimed at teens years older than her. The girl is nine, and only a few days earlier joyfully woke me up to show me the letter from the tooth fairy I’d forged in big curly letters. I figured a classmate must’ve led her into the world of teen vampire television, just as another might lead her into the world of drill. In the moments when I see these parallels, I discern value in censoring potentially violent videos from social media. It would reduce the risk of my daughter encountering footage of people threatening others with injury and death, and, if the media is to be believed, would also possibly hamper the spread of gang disrespects and lessen the febrility of social media. But the thought passes as soon as I consider the broad range of issues that contribute to youth violence regardless—and the targeted oppression that would follow a censorship policy which reproaches individuals for reporting on the content of their own lives.
It was while driving my daughter to school that I heard snippets of Britain’s former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, discussing the role of music in shaping youth identities. My two-year-old was whacking a plastic chicken thigh against his window, so there were some gaps in my comprehension, but it went something like this: “sometimes it’s——-how much of young people’s lives—-spent on social media–we need to make sure we influence some of the output in a way that doesn’t have the devastating impacts—–.” Later, I caught a chunk of the ten o’clock news and heard more from Rudd. It turns out her discussion didn’t look beyond drill music, singling out this one genre as though it were the sole dilemma in the context of social media’s influence on Britain’s diverse youth population. “It’s already an offense to incite or encourage violence online,” she argued, “and I expect to see social media companies standing by their obligations to remove this kind of content as necessary.” More worrying was the responsibility she siphoned off onto the music industry and drill scene. Treating music as a vacuum, as if songs themselves invent youth violence and gang culture, Rudd’s statement overlooked political solutions that would confront the issues that truly engender violence—such as initiatives to address alienation and trauma, or a greater emphasis on community outreach projects, access to education, and better-funded mental health services. Rather than tackle the issue of violence itself, she asserted that social media should censor a single group as if they were the root cause of youth violence in Britain:
Social media companies must do more, so today I am calling on them to review their terms and conditions and make it clear that they will not host any content linked to gangs or gang violence.
Her statement went on to suggest that market-driven censorship could work for the moral good, saying, “I think yes, looking to the music industry to also have a positive influence is a very good suggestion.” I was shocked. It is slightly sinister to insist that a creative industry could be utilized for the moral good, let alone doing so while employing such vague and uncertain terms.
According to the Croydon-based artist T Face, drill music isn’t a cause of violence, but a means of explaining the issues behind the conflict in the lives of musicians. “All it’s doing is it’s televising it,” he told BBC News, “it’s telling you what’s happening.” Through drill, artists have a means of exploring and challenging the political marginalization of their voices. While some may call the music “hyper-aggressive,” the genre provides a space for youths to articulate their experiences in their own words. For T Face, drill’s reporting of inner-city gang crime is socially necessary because it provides a space for discussion about communities that the state and mainstream media refuse to acknowledge. In his view, drill music enables politically alienated communities to highlight the urgent need for change. “You guys just don’t know,” he told the BBC. He continued:
It would make sense for the media to just go “yeah, yeah look over there, there’s crime, there’s blacks, Hispanics, whatever, they’re over their making this kind of music and this is what’s happening in those areas,” so they’re just pointing the finger really.
T Face’s statement highlights how media concern for communities facing social trauma is never far from being superseded by the notion that racial minorities are the cause of their own communities’ suffering. Sympathy turns to censure, as media and political outlets prefer to blame rather than acknowledge the myriad social, political, and economic causes of gang violence. Viewed through the lens of its fans and creators, drill is an art form whose large social media viewership enables its practitioners to rap against such narratives.
The censorship argument, in drill music’s case, revolves around the concern that the genre acts as an incitement to further violence. It sees drill songs as a particular form of news reporting, where shoots of social commentary are predominantly dwarfed by talk about wanting to harm others, often with guns and knives. Pointing to past evidence, the argument suggests that when this news is aired on social media, audience pressure for one group to retaliate against the insults of another causes inevitable violence. Craig Pinkney, a criminologist who has researched the links between social media, drill music, and violence, warns about the connection between art and life. In drill music, he says,
…most of the arguments that take place and the discrepancies and conflicts that take place on social media, quite quickly what we see is that being amplified into the physical world. So, an individual disrespects somebody on a social media platform, in some cases within twelve hours there’s a shooting, a stabbing, an attack.
In June, I was breakfasting on a train commute, reading The Independent’s data from their freedom for information request into youth knife crime figures. I skimmed the numbers to learn that the overall number of knife crime incidents in England and Wales, against victims aged twenty-five or younger, increased from 3,857 from 2013 through 2014, to 6,503 from March 2017 through March 2018. Much of this violence has been linked in the press with drill music, and, in the midst of media emphasis on the link between drill music and the upsurge in youth violence, the Mars corporation, manufacturers of popular sweets, pulled its advertising from YouTube. An advertisement for Starburst sweets had preceded a video by the drill group Moscow17; the drill scene had been brought to public attention, in part, through the murders of two of Moscow17’s group members, and Mars didn’t want the association. The victims of this particular case were Siddique Kamara, twenty-three, and Rhyheim Ainsworth Barton, seventeen. The connection between the murders and the music was made particularly prominent by a large number of British newspapers who recalled Kamara’s earlier words concerning the role drill music has in encouraging violence. The publications included The Sun, Daily Mail, and The Guardian, with each borrowing quotes from an interview Link Up TV undertook with Siddique and his bandmates. In it, Siddique states, “the crime that’s happening, right, music does influence it. You’ve got to put your hands up and say drill music does influence it.”
However, the precise role of drill music, as a genre within the greater phenomenon of youth violence, remains a debating point. Does the music instigate violence as Amber Rudd suggests, or does the music report violence as T Face argues? Either way, the genre’s reputation has shaped a desire to squash rather than to engage. I once considered how a girl my daughter’s age would feel if she encountered a track on social media that threatened someone she loves. In that moment, I wouldn’t mind drill videos being squashed from social media. And I have to acknowledge, however hard it may be, that this response is not dissimilar to my father’s reaction to Sisqó’s thong fixation, or Nelly’s insistence on singing about his ability to make women sweat.
Explaining the role of drill in their company’s decision to suspend advertising, a Mars spokesperson said,
It is unacceptable and disappointing to see one of our brands advertised alongside this video content… until we have confidence that appropriate safeguards are in place, we will not advertise on YouTube.
The refusal to encounter that which we do not agree with—it makes me consider my father’s compulsion to deny the existence of music he considered morally questionable. It was as if he felt that, through acknowledging the music and its associated cultures, he’d be opening himself to the possibility of my sister and I changing beyond the scope of his knowledge. Instead, he invented new ways of influencing us, some involving bizarre connections. Whenever my father was exposed to a song he felt went against his morals, he more vehemently clung to what he knew. After hearing me sing a particular song by Shaggy, my sister and I found him in my bedroom, sticking our Imam’s face, slightly off-centre, onto my plain white T-shirts. As a man who doesn’t have the corporate concerns of Mars and has lived through the confusion of a father asserting his power to censor without explaining the reasons behind that censorship, I feel I must engage with the opportunity to elicit conversation when I am concerned about the content my children may consume.
Personally, given the nature of the drill music genre and the reputation it carries, I have no qualms about Mars wanting to disentangle themselves from associations with the scene. Corporations, like humans, have the right to manage and articulate the relationships their messages foster. However, the question of how YouTube responds to the economic and reputation-related threats dished out by Mars, particularly when combined with demands from the British police to remove drill videos from social media—that troubles me more. There’s a market for drill music and record labels have taken notice. Young people are getting opportunities for income that they would not otherwise receive. I find myself wondering: how could removing these streams of income, and silencing voices that receive little attention from other outlets, serve to address youth violence?
Interestingly, the blame for drill music’s reputation typically only extends to the young artists, and not those making money off of their lyrics. The workings of record labels are morally questionable given that, if the connection between drill music and violence is correct as the media suggests, they are profiteering from violence and bloodshed. However, these labels have largely escaped criticism, as—other than the recent criticisms of YouTube and DJ Tim Westwood—the onus is largely placed on the music makers themselves. This fact is particularly striking in the way the British legal system has dealt with the drill scene. In June of this year, the judge Recorder Ann Mulligan set a precedent by banning the band 1011 from including any mention in their lyrics of death, injury, and postcodes in the context of gang behavior. Additionally, they must notify police of videos they intend to publish, give police forty-eight hours’ notice before music video shoots, and allow officers to attend. It was the Metropolitan police who requested that Recorder Mulligan issue the court order, exemplifying the state’s broader method of handling the drill scene as a matter that must be surveilled and policed.
As part of their “Operation Domain” strategy, Britain’s Metropolitan police asked YouTube to remove drill videos from their site. Predictably, after the site began complying with this demand, the UK drill music community fought back. PressPlayUK, a YouTube channel that features drill artists and promoted the hashtag #DropTheKnifePickUpTheMic, reported success in fighting the ban. The channel’s moderator wrote,
…had a meeting with YouTube and with what’s happened lately the police and the main police commissioner has forced YouTube to take down some videos. It will probably be back up in the next few weeks just ATM with what’s going this has caused this.
As PressPlayUK predicted, the ban of drill music videos on YouTube was temporary, though the issue was not fully resolved. Rather than indicating a change in policy, the victory came down to the stubbornness of the drill community, whose members re-uploaded videos out of a sense that their medium of expression was being unfairly targeted. Refusing to accept drill music’s official designation as a cause of social disorder that exists beyond its own musical culture, and which preceded the development of the genre, these fans voiced the key problem with censorship—and with the way in which the British state and media has chosen to address the issue.
Considering Rudd’s contention that censorship could offer a positive solution to the spread of violence and other negative effects on Britain’s youth community, I thought back to a few months prior, when I took my children out for pancakes at a dessert parlor aimed at pre-teens. MTV was quietly playing on a large screen on the parlor’s wall. A video presented a suited young man who, as part of his broad scheme to avoid appearing like an average clubber, reclined on a sofa and sung whilst beckoning scantily clad women to provocatively serve him drinks. Watching as she poured her syrup, my daughter asked me, “Dad, why are the girls always nearly naked and the boys get to wear clothes?” This floored me so completely that I was grateful my two-year-old took the heat off of me by tipping his pancakes onto the floor and chanting his own version of the Motown classic, “The Onion Song.” Later that evening, I fumbled through an answer to my daughter’s question as best I could. I tried to explain power, misogyny, social expectations, and how all these things impact women’s bodies in a way I hoped my daughter could understand. While I prepared the chat like a well-balanced meal, I felt the components slipping around and falling off. As a man speaking on these issues to his daughter, I couldn’t shift the feeling that my own catalogue of experiences were inadequate. Afterwards I wondered, what could be the extent of the positive influence Rudd suggests the music industry may have? Would corporate entities be equipped to handle questions regarding nuanced perspectives, let alone those their spokesmen have not lived? Would censorship of one genre, and then another, ever stretch to prevent future generations from having to make the kind of observations my daughter made over those pancakes?
A key belief, and one that my daughter and her classmates often face, is the adult notion that it’s natural for young people to want to conform with the standards that broader society perceives as desirable. The mother of one of my daughter’s best friends recently glowed about how she spent hours getting her daughter ready for a school disco. She went to painstaking lengths to teach her how to apply lipstick and eyeshadow. What worries me isn’t the makeup—it’s the conversation surrounding why and for whom lipstick and makeup is worn, the balance between social expectation and personal choice. I’m glad that conversation at the dessert parlor came up. I hope it means my daughter will consider more than appearances, and will view makeup as simply an optional part of the morning routines of some individuals when she sees young women in music videos, on billboards, and on the streets.
Who can British society look to as the most likely group to affect positive change? Who will characterize the images that swarm young people as they chew on their pancakes at local diners, wait at the school bus stop, or visit the magazine section of a supermarket? While “positive change” is a hat politicians like Amber Rudd wear often, the brim of the hat seems designed to obscure everything except that which the politician chooses to face. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that my daughter needs to be relied upon to make her own positive choices amidst the chorus of media.
Whilst I am now deeply concerned with the music industry’s complicity in extending violent and exploitative attitudes, and can now finally understand my father’s concern with the values showcased in Nelly and Sisqó’s songs, at the time I was mostly upset with my father. He gave no explanation for his actions and simply asserted his power without respecting those on the receiving end. Following his unexplained bans of Sisqó and Nelly, my sister and I bought a pair of ferrets. We named the ferrets after the rappers and held weekly tribute concerts for the artists. My father’s insistence piqued our interest more than the songs did themselves. I abandoned my previous passion of collecting Tartan headwear and spent my pocket money on R&B mixtapes. There are parallels with the effects of the media’s condemnation of drill music—interest in the scene has soared as its publicity and reputation as a dangerous genre have grown. Music videos such as “Time is Money” by Skengdo X AM and M Huncho’s “Come Up” have topped two million and five million YouTube views, respectively. Regardless of our rebellious intentions, my sister and I were too respectful of our father to grow our protests over the edges of his consciousness.
The drill music community’s protest, in contrast, has spawned from a deeper sense of injustice, calling forth an experience of prejudice that blends into prevailing challenges regarding the state’s treatment of minority communities. A recent storming of a drill music video by the Metropolitan police failed to meet such challenges.
On a sunny late July evening in Hackney, a group of youths could be spotted placing their hands behind their heads whilst staring beyond a high metal fence. One man stood a few yards back and filmed the events on his phone. There were helicopters overhead and police sporting machine guns. The scene was loud and attracted significant attention. Twenty minutes beforehand, some of the youths had been wearing balaclavas and shouting out violent threats. The police were armed severely because they were responding to reports of a firearm having been spotted. However, ultimately, the result was a group of young men being confronted by weaponized police after having decided to spend their time making a music video. No arrests were subsequently made. The police action highlights the danger of failing to dedicate sufficient effort to build relationships with communities, and the negative effects of targeting groups as a source of violence that is in fact pervasive and born of societal circumstance.
Clearly, the politics of drill music are different than the songs my father banned in my childhood. In censoring Nelly and Sisqo’s lyrics, my father didn’t risk silencing a scene’s right to expression. That being said, my father would’ve saved hundreds on ferret training pads and color prints of our Imam’s face if he’d just taken the step to engage with us. The UK faces a similar need to connect—by censoring communities without engaging with them, and simultaneously failing to confront issues such as funding cuts, health concerns, and economic opportunity, the government removes the drill community’s voice without giving its members other, potentially less violent, avenues of self-expression. Furthermore, it risks adding to a spirit of distrust within the country, fostering an endemic alienation that our children will have to confront. I hope to one day wake to this on Google: another politician arguing that censorship has come too close to hunting, questioning whether we should continue to censor the same groups we witnessed being censored as children, or whether it’s time to rethink the assumptions of our predecessors. If not that, I wouldn’t mind waking to politicians pinning words to the silence surrounding all of the issues that truly engender violence and disrespect within our culture. Even better would be waking to the sound of my daughter navigating the web, and knowing that the discoveries of today, and of the future, would be met by a mind which is pleased to recognize that none exist in isolation—that each is one in a bounty of chain-links and that, should she choose to look, she is more than capable to meet and process the humdrum, bleak, and joyous findings at the end of those chains.
Feature photograph by David Wright [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.