I feel the need to preface this by pointing out that I enjoy rap music, even the kind that I will be making a critical analysis of in this article, and although I will be exploring some of the negative and positive impacts of rap music, this is my subjective opinion.
When talking about violence within rap music, I am often going to be referring to “drill” specifically. You will also notice me mention “grime”. According to Wikipedia “Drill is a style of trap music that originated in the South Side of Chicago in early 2010. It is defined by its dark, violent, nihilistic lyrical content and ominous trap-influenced beats.” Whereas “Grime is a genre of electronic music that emerged in London in the early 2000s. … The style is typified by rapid, syncopated breakbeats, generally around 140 beats per minute, and often features an aggressive or jagged electronic sound.” And rap is just a general term that is an acronym for “Rhythm And Poetry.”
Within drill songs, you’ll find certain phrases and ideologies that get reused by all different rappers, many of these are pertinent to violent crimes. You’ll often see variations of the word “cheffing” in relationship to being on an “opp block” whilst “doing road”. I’m not here to act as an urban dictionary, but these words and phrases all insinuate either impending violence or an expectation that violent activity could arise at any moment.
There are subtle ways of doing this, but then there’s also very overt ways of including criminal activity within rap lyrics. You only have to type in “drill music” on YouTube and you’ll see an abundance of young men with balaclavas and masks on basically citing a prosecution lawyers opening statement for them over a bass-heavy beat.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love drill music, there’s some artists whose music can portray some very vivid imagery of crime and violence that I really do enjoy listening to. Out of the 4.2 million views on Jordan McCann’s ‘Fire in The Booth’, I probably account for a good 50 of them. The same applies to ‘Italian shoes’ by Silky, ‘Shots’ by Morrisson, the list goes on, Rap, predominantly Grime and Drill, accounts for 95% of my playlist. And I’m not writing this article to condemn drill music, nor am I writing it as a defence of the abstraction of incentivised violence across any media platform. I am writing this to explore the systemic issues that cause this music to resonate so closely with thousands of young people and why I believe that it is as a result of these issues. We are seeing an increase in violence amongst young people and in turn, more people rapping about and promoting their violent lifestyles even if it is a result of necessity and not as a leisure activity.
One other thing that it may be worth bringing to attention is that you may be drawing some minor similarities from this article and the debate over whether videogames cause violence; I would like to be on the record to say that I think it is completely untrue that videogames are even remotely responsible for causing violence in young people. The problem is, I believe that music is intrinsically different to other forms of media in that when you play a video game, as much as you can get attached to characters, you know that they are just characters, lines of code written by somebody in order for you to live out a virtual existence in the shoes of somebody else.
Grand Theft Auto being the classic example, the game where you can beat a stripper to death in the alley behind a strip club, steal a car, ram raid a jewellers and open fire with an automatic weapon into crowds of innocent civilians, the list of possible crimes is endless.
A team of researchers at New Zealand’s Masset University did a re-examination of 28 previous studies that looked at the link between aggressive behaviour and videogames. The team, lead by Aaron Drummond, reported that the miniscule positive correlation between the violent games and real life violent acts was even below the threshold to be classed as a “small effect”.
I believe this to be the same for films as well, I think even when films are based on true events, there’s always that deep knowledge that what you’re seeing is just an actress or an actor portraying an event. Although I am very aware that this can spark emotion, and pieces of cinematic media like ‘Blue story’ and shows like ‘Top boy’ that do portray themes that you will find in rap music time and time again, they do still impact people on an emotional level, but this just isn’t as visceral as rap music, and let me explain why I think this.
The reason that rap music is so different is that it’s often real people recounting events that they have personally experienced. There’s a lot of powerful imagery in rap that comes from first-hand accounts of witnessing and performing, murders, taxation, kidnapping, armed robbery, drug deals, section 18 assaults, possession of firearms, carrying blades / machetes… the list goes on.
We’re seeing people talk about these activities, they’ve got a catchy flow, they’re incredibly poetic lyricists, and then you see them driving fancy cars that you could never afford from a 9 to 5 job, brandishing stacks upon stacks of cash, they’re in big houses with their mates drinking and taking recreational drugs and for all intents and purposes they’re enjoying life in a way that only rich people can.
But then here’s the key part, a lot of these rappers started off in impoverished communities, Potter Payper being a prime example, he isn’t often seen without some Gucci accessories, gold chains, and expensive grillz, he grew up in poverty, and often raps about his experiences. That criminal life was something that he was destined to undertake. We see this I the following lyrics of his song ‘When I was little’:
“when I was little I was never scared of the bogeyman, I was scared of Scumbag police in the bully van”.
Fredo is another example, in his Daily Duppy he raps about “hitting licks” and “selling white” at 15 years of age and stating that those activities were what all the people that he looked up to were doing. It was making him money, paying his bills and it was the future that he was assumingly going to have and other than rap, didn’t have any inclination to do anything else.
The issue with such visceral storytelling is that the people telling these stories are iconic. They’re aspirations for kids growing up 2 streets away from these rappers’ old houses, they hear about what the rappers did and they see what they do now and the women and the cars and the jewellery and they automatically assume that they need to follow that exact path in order to get there.
I’m not naive enough to say that drill music is the cause of all violent crime however I certainly thinkthat there are crimes committed as a direct result of the topics that people have heard discussed in music (and like all media-inspired crimes, from the fact that being a good criminal is something that you learn from years of being in that life and not something you can get a 3 minute 42 second audio-guide on and all of a sudden become the Pablo Escobar of East London).
Ultimately, the issue is that this music does resonate with people.
Let’s take a look at some statistics, here’s an extract from the BBC news article found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46984559 :
“Violent crime recorded by police in England and Wales has risen by 19% in a year, latest Home Office figures show.
The number of homicides – including murder and manslaughter – rose from 649 to 739, an increase of 14%, in the 12 months to the end of September 2018.
It is the the highest total for such crimes since 2007.
Robbery went up by 17%, as did recorded sexual offences, according to the data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Overall crimes recorded by police went up by 7% with a total of 5,723,182 offences recorded.”
Now I don’t think it is up for debate that we have seen an increase in drill music and new drill artists over that same period of time, and although correlation doesn’t imply causation, when two things are so entwined, one tends to have a knock on effect to the other. People even try and force a lifestyle that they aren’t involved in just for the sake of having something to rap about or to gain quick respect on the streets. Is lying about being involved in crime better than actual being involved? I feel that really depends, at face value, fictional crime isn’t going to affect crime statistics, however the repercussions of rapping about a life that you don’t live is that you make yourself a target.
If people think you have “trap houses” and “bandos” (property where recreational drugs are grown, kept and/or made) a percentage of those people are going to be inclined to try and rob those, and gain the information on where they are located by any means necessary. “Rap cap” is just another way to victimise yourself and put a price on your head.
And we’ve all seen a lot of big media companies attach rap music as a whole and often specific rappers for certain actions, but I personally hate seeing such biased arguments. Like rapper Abra Cadabra said “Our art is imitating our life, not the other way round”. I believe that this is an important statement, as one of the bigger names in drill, Abracadabra understands his influence over the people that listen to his music and pointing out that performing at Wireless festival gives his younger fans something to aspire to. However, how can you make songs about violence and a criminal lifestyle without getting called out for “rap cap” (lying in a rap song or clout) if you don’t first come from that background?
On the other hand, let’s explore the reasons that rap music isn’t, at it’s core, negative. Take this lyric from the recent Daily Duppy that Chip released for his 30th birthday: “Me, I get money off lines, not money off a line so of course I be touchin’ the beat, you’ll get touched, how you mean?” Chip is an undeniable titan in the UK rap scene and he often raps about how he’s never resorted to drugs or violence as a means of income and still wears £1,300 Moncler puffer jackets.
The next Chip lyric I’d like to analyse is:
“And I ain’t got no rap songs ’bout who my knife went in
So sorry darg, you might not relate when I’m pennin’, but
Follow my trail, I’ll teach you how to not go to jail
But get it from sales, just start when you’re younger, it helps”
Here Chip is rapping about how he’s never bragged about ‘cheffing’ or owning ‘skengs’ (a broad term used to describe a weapon of some kind – can also be used as a general, contextual term of positivity). But he’s made all of his money off of music sales, but not only that, he’s inviting the younger generation to follow in his footsteps and do it the right way.
Amazingly, in recent years, especially within the realms of grime rappers, we have seen an increase of political rap being publicised by mainstream media channels. An example of this is Stormzy performing on the Glastonbury main stage getting the entire crowd to quote the line “F**k the government and f**k Boris” from his Vossi Bop song, whilst under a conservative government lead by Boris Johnson, and the amazing thing is, this was nationally broadcast by the BBC.
Then there was another mainstream rapper, Santan Dave, performing at Glastonbury, and he’s known for tackling sensitive subjects in his rap music, from “Question time” raising issues around Grenfell, Theresa May’s shambolic time in 10 Downing Street, and David Cameron abandoning the country after kicking Brexit into action. You might even recognise Dave from his number 1 single with Fredo “Funky Friday”, which held the top spot in UK charts for five consecutive weeks.
There are two rappers in particular who I personally am a huge fan of, that I don’t think get enough credit for not only being incredible lyricists, but for being able to spread a positive message through their raps, and use their flows to enlighten the word regarding current crises. These are Lowkey and Akala. You might recognise Akala from being on numerous news shows and debate panels as an advocate of lowering knife crime and participating in anti-racism campaigns.
Lowkey is known for being the rapper that took a hiatus from rap to conduct PhD research on the role of political leadership in identity politics at the University of Sheffield. And I’ll leave it to you to listen to his song (which caused some outraged when YouTube flagged it) “terrorist” or any of his “Fire in the booths”, or read Akala’s graphic novel “The ruins of empires” and see how they’ve managed to incorporate political activism into rap. However, I digress from my original point.
As discussed previously, the storytelling in rap music is second to none, and a man who was an absolute genius when it came to storytelling in rap music was Blaine “Cadet” Johnson. The self-professed “underrated legend” really knew how to convey powerful emotions just through his lyrics, making songs that really echoed within the hearts of many, including his famous “Closure” song and his “Letter to Krept”. These are an incredible insight into what his family life was like and the ups and downs that come with fame and the hard road to get there. As Cadet (and indeed his cousin Krept) has shown, the storytelling and powerful imagery in rap music can be an amazingly powerful tool, and used in a positive way, it can still be relatable and even come from a dark place emotionally, but it doesn’t have to be used solely to market a positive view on criminality.
There are a lot of positives to rap music, it is an aspiration for plenty of young people, myself included, I find myself listening to rappers, watching rap videos and being envious of the lives that they live. But the appeal to me of those videos is being “young, rich and famous” as Fredo and Not3s would put it, rap music doesn’t give me any desire to go and sell drugs, However I do find it incomparably motivating though, and who can blame me when I’m picturing popping bottles on yachts with models and carrying around somebody’s monthly wage in my jean pockets?
Herein lies the problem, here’s why you can’t pin rising crime rates solely, or even remotely, on rap music, because if you get a sudden and extreme bout of motivation to make money and be successful, and the only way you know how to do that is by selling recreational pharmaceuticals, then that’s what you’re going to do, and if you’re being motivated to be the best, most successful person you know, and all you associates are out stabbing people and stealing cars, then what do you have to do to be successful in comparison?
There’s very few people that wish a criminal lifestyle upon themselves, and often, those that do wish it upon themselves don’t actual have any involvement in a criminal lifestyle. In his first ever interview, Morrisson sits opposite Reece Parkinson of BBC Radio 1 Xtra and he mentions that it’s a completely alien environment to him, being sat in a room with microphones, studio lights and cameras. Reece follows up by asking “Do you reckon you’d want to get used to it” to which Morrisson replies “Yeah, it’s a lot easier than what I do elsewhere…” and then says “It’s not hard bro, it’s an easy decision to make. Who wants to be out there doing all that madness? No one does, and if someone says they do, they’re lying” and that’s coming from somebody with a lot of respect on the streets and in the rap game.
There’s nothing wrong with being successful. Really, the only definitions of what’s a right way to be successful and what’s a wrong way to get there are just societal standards, and success to one person doesn’t look the same as success to another.
The issue with the rising crime rates is a societal issue, it’s systemic issue, it’s an issue where young people are being told to be successful, but due to a whole range of socio-political issues, their idea of success is being able to sell the most drugs without getting caught. Alternatively, they want to make a clean living, but the only way they know how to make money is through illicit activities, and some money is better than no money if it means the difference between you having a roof over your head and being able to provide for your loved ones.
Of course, there are veterans of the game who are so deeply involved in criminal activity that they can’t just walk away and they don’t know any other life, but that’s a separate issue right now. In order to lower the violent crime rates, this doesn’t just apply to music-fuelled criminal activities, we have to take a step back and look at the reason this lifestyle is so available to young people in the first place.
This lifestyle is so available because there’s a failing education system, this is backed by 2019 report done by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the UK is only ranked 27th in the world for maths and 15th for science. An astonishing 40% of British secondary school students are not achieving the baseline standards and 44% leave with less than 5 GCSEs graded A* to C.
You can read more about the aforementioned article below:
That report could be indicative that kids who don’t do well at school are destined to only have jobs where they can’t afford the necessities to stay alive. Gentrification means that even people with decent jobs that just manage to get by are driven out of their homes due to an increase of living costs. Single mums that raise kids have to make a choice on sacrificing the invaluable time they get to spend with their kids or being able to afford to provide them with food and clothes.
Then there’s the taboo issue of racial profiling in rap music and crime in general. That’s a topic that in the interest of keeping this article from becoming a novel, I will delve into in a follow-up post.
When collating all of this information, it isn’t conclusive proof, but it is very much indicative that there’s an underlying problem here that isn’t caused by vulgar language and obscene imagery in rap music. There’s an issue of young people living in poverty in the UK who see no way of getting out without getting into a life of crime as ordinary jobs don’t pay enough to support basic human necessities without relying on benefits from the government. Before fame, these young people are often just seen as a statistic to back up pre-existing prejudices about certain cultures and further drive a wedge between the different social and often racial groups within society. Because of them being on mainstream media so often, these rappers who talk about these lifestyles are just acting as a microcosm for those minority of people in the UK. What’s your opinion on the influence of rap music on youth culture today?