The controversial music that is the sound of global youth

However, in a 2020 article for the British Criminology Journal on the criminalizing of drill music, Jonathan Ilan, senior lecturer in the sociology department at London’s City University, stresses the need for nuance in how lyrics are interpreted. “Contemporary UK drill is being treated as if what it speaks about is literal truth,” he writes. He argues that many drill rappers exaggerate or fabricate violent stories because they know it attracts listeners: “This is not to deny that crime and violence take place involving drillers as either victims or perpetrators – rather, it emphasises not to view the violence as directly related to, caused by or evidenced by the music”. Ilan also suggests that censuring drill does more harm than good, further alienating marginalised communities and ultimately exacerbating the conditions which lead to urban violence in the first place.

Drill fans and practitioners argue that in confronting the darkest truths of modern life and holding up a mirror to the most deprived, desperate and violent elements of society, their art resonates with young, disenfranchised listeners around the world – and that in itself is valuable. “This is music they can feel,” says Corey Johnson. “They can feel that this is the voice of what’s happening. So you’re getting kids in other countries saying ‘this is what’s happening for me, this is what’s happening on my streets’.” He adds that, rather than aggravating urban living conditions, drill now offers a proven path to a better life. “Because of a lack of social and economic opportunities, the music’s becoming a business. It’s becoming more positive than negative.” 

Johnson says the harsh realities that gave rise to drill should be neither denied nor censored, comparing its reflection of gang violence to the prevalence of domestic violence narratives in early blues music. “Maybe the media never looked at it like that, but a lot of things are birthed from hardship and pain. Same way that behind more or less every fortune there’s a crime.” What’s also clear is that, for many, drill is no longer even bound up in braggadocio or talk of killing opps. Given that gang conflict is a predominantly male phenomenon, perhaps the receding importance of violence in drill music is linked to the rise of women in the drill scene. While artists like Sasha Go Hard and Katie Got Bandz played a crucial, understated role in Chicago drill’s early days, UK drill rappers like Shaybo and Ivorian Doll – who was recently crowned “Queen of drill” – are now reaching levels of stardom that rival the men. 

The future of drill

No matter how it’s policed, drill’s global rise feels unstoppable. At time of writing Ghana’s drill scene is fast becoming the hottest in the world, completing a loop which, before London, before Chicago, even before hip-hop parties in the Bronx, began with Jamaican sound systems and, before that, the African drum. “We as Africans, the drill speaks to us differently,” says ChicoGod. His definition of drill is broad, progressive, dynamic. “Drill is a lifestyle. It’s about what we see, go through in a society, what society has made us. We talk about the good, we talk about the bad.” For him, liking drill suggests open-mindedness in a listener. “Cos the people listening to that sound, I’m sure, have decided to listen without trying to judge the person. Not everybody likes it. And if you like it, then you relate to it, in some way, somehow. Anybody can relate to it, you just have to listen. You just have to pay attention to what the person is saying.”