Can music be violence? The banning of “Drill” music and it’s influence in the UK
Posted on September 18, 2018 by Tia Lalani
Augustana musicologist Alex Carpenter examines the recent push to ban Drill music in the UK to determine whether or not music can cause violence.
Over the summer, major media outlets began running stories about the banning of so-called “Drill” music in the UK. Drill is a sub-genre of hip-hop that originates in Chicago and is an extension of street gang culture: gangs produce Drill songs with videos to taunt and threaten rival gangs, and the back-and-forth exchanges of these videos on YouTube often escalate to real violence on the streets. After a number of brutal murders in London—the victims and the perpetrators are mainly young, black teens who are both gang members and members of Drill groups—the MET police have banned some Drill groups from making music.
The notion that music and violence, or other forms of social dysfunction, are linked is certainly not new.
The earliest philosophical thought concerned with music—found in the work of Plato and Aristotle—saw music as having the potential to have a significant impact upon the real world, especially with respect to youth. Students learning about music, these philosophers argued, needed to be protected from music’s power: it could shape a young person positively, but it could also distort and pervert his character. To be a good soldier or citizen, you had to learn the right types of songs, comprised of the right types of melodies, and not spend too much time on music in case it corrupted you. Music, in other words, could have real and sometimes dangerous ramifications for both individuals and for society as a whole.
What does this have to do with modern hip-hop and gang murders in London? Banning a certain type of music because of its perceived effects in the world is tricky, partly because of how the discussion is framed. Drill music is, according to the many journalists covering this story, a particularly “aggressive” form of hip-hop. The problem with this, from my perspective as a musicologist, is the laziness of such commentators and their inability to discuss music as a sonic object in meaningful ways.
I would argue that Drill does not sound aggressive at all: quite the opposite—it is strikingly mild to the ear. It features slow-paced rhythm tracks and deeply resonant bass, with fluid and modestly melodic rap over top; any accompanying music typically comprises thin, subdued, pop-inflected tracks featuring harmonic drones and ringing bell tones. The lyrics may be aggressive, insofar as they include poeticized threats of violence; the videos reinforce this, as the performers—who are also gang members—often appear hooded and masked, making shooting gestures and gang signs with their hands. Perhaps the deeper question—and this resonates with contemporary political debates about free speech and whether speech itself is a form of violence—is this: can music be violence?
Ultimately, the ancient Greeks couldn’t resolve this issue either. For them, music was mimetic: it imitated reality. Aggressive music was that which imitated aggressiveness in the real world. But it is not clear in the writings of Plato and Aristotle precisely what constitutes musical aggression or violence that would be analogous to the real thing. As Michael Gallope observes in Deep Refrains, his recent book on music and philosophy, Socrates called for the banishment of certain types of harmful music based on the social effects he perceived, but in the end, admitted he didn’t really know what made some music harmful.
In a contemporary context, we can certainly see that street gang violence is pantomimed and documented in Drill videos, but we are on shaky ground when we want to ban Drill music itself for being violent, or even argue that it causes violence. This observation is not a defense of gang-inspired hip-hop by any means, but rather a reminder that music is sound organized in time. It is difficult, if not impossible, for philosophers and musically-trained scholars to ascribe concrete social meaning or effects to something so nebulous, much less the police. It is also worth remembering, when one is tempted to ban or blame music for social ills, that words, music, and images, even when joined in songs and music videos, are simply not the same things.
Alexander Carpenter, Music, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on Tuesday, September 11, 2018.
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