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Sunday 5 May 2019

policing youth culture

Doing violence to music

  • For the first time, two British performers – drill musicians – have been given suspended prison sentences for performing a song
  • Other rappers need police permission to release songs, are banned from parts of London, or prevented by law from wearing masks
  • Police call this part of the fight against street violence but it is an unprecedented infringement of freedom of expression

By Tom Goulding

Joshua Malinga, better known as AM, is standing, mic in hand, in front of hundreds of hyped-up Londoners in a music venue in north London. He’s wearing a bright red two-piece tracksuit and the face mask he’s known for, only his eyes visible. Teenagers at the front stand crushed against each other, a sea of phones aloft.

A piano hook comes in over the speakers and a rush of euphoria spreads through the crowd. The hook introduces Attempted 1.0, one of AM’s best known tracks. It’s “one from the heart,” he tells a TV crew moments before going on stage. And it’s a hit – one of the biggest to date in the sub-genre of rap known as drill music that exploded from London’s housing estates into national consciousness last year.

Attempted 1.0 perfectly encapsulates drill’s appeal – pugnacious and ominous, mischievous and morose. At its heart is a vortex of endlessly circling piano and brass bass that underlies AM’s deep voice, calling out rivals he looks down on, setting the record straight on hyper-local feuds in his south London borough of Lambeth.

That performance at the KOKO club in Camden was fateful  for AM and his fellow rapper Skengdo. They would be hit with a two-year suspended prison sentence for breaching an injunction obtained by the Metropolitan Police that prohibited them producing or performing any songs that mentioned rival drill artists by name, as Attempted 1.0 does.

The police argue that such lyrics encourage “gang-related violence”. The duo have no convictions for, or direct link to, violent offences, and there has been no violence at any Skengdo and AM show. The use of “gang injunctions” is part of a systematic crackdown on drill groups who police believe are linked to the highest level of street violence in London for a decade – that left 135 dead people in 2018.

The sentence was the first time a British artist has been given a prison sentence just for performing a song.

Skengdo and AM are now banned from the SE11 postcode of Kennington, though police unsuccessfully sought to ban them from SE1 too, which covers a five kilometre stretch of the south bank of the Thames. Some drill groups, like 1011, have to get police approval before they release any song. Zone 2 rapper Kwengface cannot post anything on the internet that shows him wearing a balaclava.

Lambeth Police claim that songs which call out rivals by name “lead to outbreaks of violence”. By using powers usually reserved for terror suspects they avoid the need to show a direct link between the artists’ speech and acts of violence. AM and Skengdo say their songs are simply a real-world commentary on their lives in a sometimes violent part of south London. Just as their careers were gathering pace, offering them a route out of the poverty they grew up in, they became targets of these police powers. Now they fear their songs will continue to attract police attention, and they self-censor the songwriting that made them famous.

“They’re just making a whole load of assumptions that violence is going to happen if you mention someone’s name directly,” says AM, sitting in his studio. “The most I’ve seen out of mentioning someone directly, is someone mentioning your name directly back.”

Listen to Attempted 1.0 and read AM’s descriptions of the lyrics

‘Attempted 1.0’ – Intro and Verse One

 

Rivalries between drill groups are integral to the genre’s identity and popularity. A form of rap originating in Chicago in the early 2010s, it has been taken on by London’s children of grime, and mutated. Lyrics obsessively document the angst and claustrophobia of life on estates across the city, accompanied by shimmering instrumentals in almost exclusively minor keys.

Performers go under the names of their groups: Zone 2, Moscow17 and 1011. Hype built up not only through talent and charisma, but also around the ambiguity over whether the lyrical sparring would cause real-world violence, when the threats were so direct and explicit. Deep-seated rivalries and alliances have formed along the roads snaking through Lambeth, Southwark and beyond.

 

Skengdo and AM were involved in one of drill’s defining rivalries, between their 410 group, from the Myatt’s Fields area of Brixton, and the Harlem Spartans, from the other side of Camberwell New Road in Kennington. Each boasts drill stars likely to achieve mainstream success; 410 have sold out one UK tour and are planning another, while songs by Loski, a charismatic, baby-faced rapper with the Harlem Spartans, have been streamed over 100 million times. The rivalry consists of goading in songs and on posts, typically on Snapchat. Skengdo is slim, cheeky, chilled. He often wears a backwards cap and sunglasses and always seems on the verge of a wry smile. AM is taller, with a hypnotic low voice that serves equally as melody or bass.

410’s home tells a story of 21st-century London. Myatt’s Fields is a residential triangle of mostly  former social housing blocks and ranks in the most deprived 30 per cent in the country. A botched regeneration of the Myatt’s Field North housing estate, through a private finance initiative, led to a decade-long battle between residents and private sub-contractors over a lack of basic fire protection and disintegrating infrastructure.

Despite police allegations of imminent violence, Skengdo and AM move safely and freely in Myatt’s Fields, filming music videos and hanging out. Until the injunction they went to chicken shops up the road in Kennington, deemed by police to be Harlem Spartans’ territory.

This all changed last August. To win the gang injunction, the police had to convince a county court that 410 were not only a musical group, but also a gang. So a useful question might be: what actually is a gang? The Home Office defines one as “a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group” of young people who “engage in a range of criminal activity and violence”. Laying claim over territory, and being in conflict with other similar gangs, is also mentioned.

While this remains the Metropolitan Police’s official definition, it was seen as too limiting by police units hoping to use these injunctions. Some gangs don’t lay claim to territory, they argued; rather, they operate drug networks out of town. Some don’t have defining rivalries with others. To allow for flexibility in applying for the orders, new legislation in 2015 redefined a gang as simply “a group of three or more people who share ‘a characteristic’ that enables identification of them by others as a discernible group”.

That definition would, on the face of it, include every civil society group from the Salvation Army to the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “This definition basically gives the police power to define gangs how they like,” says Rachel Harger, a human rights lawyer who works on policing.

Verse 1 (cont’d)

‘Attempted 1.0’ – Verse One (continued)

 

Local violence informed the police’s targeting of 410. Latwaan Griffiths, 18, a Harlem Spartans rapper known as Splash Addict, was stabbed to death in a Camberwell street last July. Later that evening, shots were fired into homes that police believed to belong to 410 members.

Around the same time, Rhyhiem Barton, 17, and Siddique Kamara, 23, were stabbed and shot to death respectively. Both were drill artists from Moscow17, who are allied to 410’s rivals. Police believe they were killed by rival gang members, though no members of 410 have been arrested for any of the deaths.

Even though the 410 had, at most, a peripheral connection to the two deaths, the fact that Kamara and Barton were found dead on the same street, only weeks apart, contributed to a state of crisis for the police. Gang injunctions have been around for 10 years, but this was their first systematic use against musicians.

So it was unsurprising that a provocative rap genre through which groups of black youths built a platform to voice the reality of violence on deprived estates became a target for media and police scrutiny. Nor did the drill lyricists hold back. A new vocabulary crystallised around the world of stabbings: the songs described being cheffed, splashed, chinged, kwenged and dipped.

Skengdo and AM (in ski mask) in their Brixton neighbourhood

The violence in Skengdo and AM’s lives – gang-related or otherwise – was violence done to them. At the Notting Hill carnival in 2017, AM was stabbed in the arm. While their lawyers were challenging the injunction a year later, Skengdo was stabbed in the back, arm and chest at 3am a short distance from his home. Lambeth Police used hearsay evidence to argue that these stabbings were acts of gang retaliation. No arrests were made for either attack.

The police also listed 410 members’ offences, which were mostly for possession of weapons – eight people had such convictions. Skengdo and AM both had one conviction for possessing knives, Skengdo in 2014 and AM in 2016. (“I was foolishly carrying this for my protection as there was a lot of tension in the area at the time,” Skengdo said.)

One 410 member had robbed ten schoolchildren and another was alleged to have put a Harlem Spartans member in critical condition by attacking him with a metal pole in the waiting room at Thameside prison.

“People accept they are part of the 410 group,” says Detective Inspector Luke Williams, head of the police gangs unit in Lambeth and Southwark. “There are the previous convictions of other members of the group, and these two [Skengdo and AM] have previous convictions for weapons possession, and have been subject to serious violence themselves.”

“In my view that quite clearly brings together a coherent group of people that I would say is a gang – a group of people committing crime.”

Skengdo and AM’s connection to gang-related violence was merely implied. Most drill groups contain dozens of young people who identify under a certain label or are connected by an estate or local area. The duo argued in court that being in the 410, for them, was only ever about making music.

“They were guilty by association,” says Darrell Ennis-Gayle, their lawyer. “It’s like a football club. You have management, players – Skengdo and AM are like the players – and you have fans, and football hooligans. Just because the players are prominent in a group does not mean they are integral to certain negative activities.”

Chorus

‘Attempted 1.0’ – Chorus

 

The gang injunction is a cross between a court order and the infamous anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) which were introduced by new Labour in the 1990s. It prohibits individuals behaving in certain ways, such as going into a certain postcode or wearing a balaclava – all without the need for a conviction.

As it is a civil order not a criminal charge, all police have to show is that on the balance of probabilities ­– rather than “beyond reasonable doubt” – a person has “engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence”, which includes threats of violence as well as acts; and that an injunction is, more probably than not, necessary to prevent future violence.

This shift in the burden of proof is essential to the use of gang injunctions. Uncorroborated police intelligence that would not be heard by a judge in a criminal trial can be considered, as it was for Skengdo and AM. Gang injunctions were explicitly created to get around a lack of witness co-operation with police; the sort required successfully to convict someone of a crime. Using hearsay evidence is how it’s done. “The evidence was opinionated, uncorroborated speculation,” says Ennis-Gayle.

The police did not need to show a direct link between particular songs and violent incidents. “In my view it’s no coincidence,” says DI Williams. “When somebody goes on to social media and is derogatory about another group, and then that group commits some serious violence towards the people that uploaded it, there’s clearly some sort of link there.”

“We might not be able to prove to the criminal standard that it is linked to these people,” he says. “But we’ve all got common sense in terms of seeing what’s around us.”

The current political pressure to curb youth violence meant the injunction was always going to be issued, says Ennis-Gayle. “The judge told us and the police to get together and sort out some reasonable conditions,” he says. “She told us ‘I don’t want to stop them making music, but I’m approving the injunction’.”

“We were up in arms that she said she was automatically issuing it.” No lawyers we spoke to had heard of any applications for gang injunctions against drill artists being turned down.

The injunction prevents Skengdo and AM from writing or performing songs that mention the Harlem Spartans or its members, directly or indirectly. Included was Attempted 1.0, which most directly addresses the rivalry with Harlem Spartans, discussing perceived betrayals by Aydee, Naghz and Loski.

We were trying not to base our career around beef, say AM and Skengdo. “There were a lot of disses coming our way, but we wouldn’t entertain it,” says AM. “At one point, I thought ‘You know what…’ – we’d address all these situations in one go [and make Attempted].”

“If anyone wants to say anything after that… there’s no need for any more. Refer back to that.”

The injunction barred the two men from entering SE11, the Harlem Spartans’ perceived territory of Kennington. Going into an area of roughly two square kilometres a few blocks from their homes, or using certain food shops, would now be cause for arrest.

The police’s original application for a ban from SE1 too, a postcode that includes the South Bank, London Bridge and Waterloo stations, was based on the barely credible claim this was also Harlem Spartans territory. The police themselves admit they are in legally uncharted waters, pushing the boundaries of how expansive their orders can be.

The police also asked that the injunction prohibit all communication between AM and Skengdo and 11 other members of the 410 group. Some were life-long friends from primary and secondary school.

The pair’s lawyer argued successfully that this prohibition should be eased to prevent only association with the other members for the purposes of “gang-related activity”, such as violence and anti-social behaviour,  which are illegal anyway. “What was unsavoury was labelling a friendship or an association between black boys as solely a criminal enterprise,” says Ennis-Gayle, “without any suggestion of the relationship being anything other than that.”

Verse 2

‘Attempted 1.0’ – Verse Two

After the riots in several British cities in summer of 2011, David Cameron, then the prime minister, announced an “all out war on gangs and gang culture”. “Stamping out” the gangs was “a new national priority”.

The Home Office released a report, Ending Gangs & Youth Violence, and established a gangs taskforce through which local authorities that could show evidence of a gang problem would receive funding for research to identify a “problem profile” of the young people most likely to be involved.

How much those riots were the work of gangs was not fully scrutinised. A separate Home Office report judged that only one in ten of those arrested  were gang-affiliated, and gang members “generally did not play a pivotal role”. New police powers, including the injunctions, nonetheless proliferated.

Street violence has surged in British cities recently, but most of it does not come from gangs. Local authority research earlier this decade showed that the demographic profiles of those involved with gangs on the one hand, and those convicted of serious youth violence on the other, diverge in significant ways. Those involved in gangs were older, posed a lower risk of harm, and were concentrated in different neighbourhoods from violence hotspots. The two groups had only partial overlap.

Crucially, communities with higher black and minority ethnic (BME) populations were more likely to be identified as having a “gang problem” by police and other agencies, as shown by analysis of 2010s police data by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Some 89 per cent of people identified as gang members on the police database in London are BME, and 80 per cent in Manchester. The proportion of BME perpetrators of serious youth violence in the two cities is 23 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

After videos surfaced of their performance of Attempted 1.0 in Camden, AM and Skengdo were notified that proceedings would commence over the breach of their injunction. They were called to Croydon County Court to agree the final conditions of the original injunction; in addition they would be sentenced for breaching it. “Why is it that when someone needs protecting [such as AM and Skengdo], they have draconian orders that take away their freedom?” asks Harger, the human right lawyer. “It wouldn’t happen in any other sector of society when someone is at risk.”

As news broke that two young rappers had been given a sentence for performing a song, 65 signatories from human rights organisations, musicians and lawyers sent a letter to The Guardian condemning the criminalisation of one of the few routes out of poverty for young people like Skengdo and AM. “I deal with youths on the street being stabbed and killed,” says Ennis-Gayle, “and some part of me sees perhaps the music isn’t helping sometimes, but it certainly isn’t the cause.

“The problems gang injunctions are trying to deal with are deep rooted, social problems. These injunctions are hitting the tip of the iceberg. They’re cosmetic.”

A dedicated database held by the Met Police has archived nearly 2,000 drill videos online for intelligence purposes, and the Met has successfully asked YouTube to take down 108 videos for perceived incitement to violence (Attempted 1.0 was one, although it was re-uploaded by fans). The Met’s Operation Domain employs dedicated officers who claim to be able to interpret drill lyrics to determine which are unfit for the internet. “They’re looked at by somebody that understands the music,” says DI Williams.

The group 1011, from Ladbroke Grove, West London, were caught last year in nearby Notting Hill in a car with balaclavas, masks, baseball bats and three machetes. They said they were making a drill music video; police believed they were on their way to attack rival group 12 World. Convicted for weapons possession, a criminal behaviour order says they cannot release any music without first getting permission from the Metropolitan Police. Part of the drill community now operates only on the police’s terms. How do officers decide whether to censor a particular song? “Our approach is intelligence led,” DI Williams says. “But we can’t talk about what that intelligence is.”

Most injunctions against drill groups have remained private – for one thing, artists want to be known for their music, not as trouble-makers in the eyes of labels and venues. Recent scheduled Skengdo and AM shows, at Middlesex University and a pop-up show at Sports Direct in London, were cancelled days or hours before they were scheduled. Police order venues to shut the events down, citing intelligence of impending violence, even though there has been no recorded violence at any of the pair’s shows to date.

“It’s a tool of intimidation,” says Ian MacQuaid, a manager at Moves Recordings, Skengdo and AM’s label. “The police say they’ve had intelligence of violent activity, and imply any licence renewal for the venue will be viewed dimly if the show goes ahead.”

Skengdo and AM are rewriting their songs to get round a police injunction

Skengdo and AM are now writing songs without mentioning any rivals by name. “So the delivery… and the message is filtered, and I can feel it,” AM says. “To a point where it doesn’t feel organic.”

They have written a censored version of Attempted 1.0 for their upcoming 2019 tour. They have recently recorded sessions with Dutch drill artists Sevn Alias and 3robi, looking to take drill to Europe, with stops in Rotterdam and Sweden. A new song released in March, Gun Talk, has already had more than a million streams online. It signals a move to a more commercial direction.

“It’s important to be able to express those environments that you’re in, however explicit,” says AM. “I don’t want to have to live it fully, and express it half-heartedly, you know?”

Additional reporting by Tanya Nyenwa

All lyrics copyright AM/Finesse Foreva Recordings

All photographs Andrew Testa for Tortoise

Further reading