It’s been a couple of years since large sections of the media first started panicking about drill music, questioning if the genre’s often violent lyrics were contributing to knife crime in London – sometimes claiming outright that they were.
For the youth workers helping young people navigate daily life, it was never that black and white.
Instead Ciaran Thapar saw drill as an opportunity to meet young people on their own terms.
“How can we use this undeniably organically popular type of music, and our understanding of that music, as a way of connecting with young people who otherwise are being lost to the system right now at unprecedented rates?”
Those conversations led to RoadWorks, an organisation that uses the artists worrying the media – and in some cases censored by the courts – to teach social sciences.
Combining drill and education felt natural for Ciaran, a writer who studied political theory.
“You literally have kids that are coming into the classroom bouncing off the walls and by the end of it they’re calm, they’re having conversations. And that’s because we’ve met them on their intellectual turf.”
Rapper Reveal – RoadWorks’ co-founder who’s pursuing a PHD in ethnomusicology – says his era of hip-hop has always had an “element of educating”.
“There’s the classic phrase, ‘Wu-Tang is for the children’.”
Pre-lockdown Ciaran and Reveal were reaching pupils with the RoadWorks programme in schools and pupil referral units (PRU) – where some children are sent after being excluded from school.
“Young people who break the rules, who don’t want to conform, are natural social scientists. They’re natural philosophers, questioning what’s around them.
“You might not be channelling that in the right way right now – but I bet you’ve got the type of mind that we can talk to.”
When coronavirus hit, the duo realised YouTube would be a good place to continue the work.
Their series Drillosophy, which lives on music channel Mixtape Madness – one with almost 1m subscribers, is the result.
Episodes so far have used drill music to explore Plato’s Cave, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, and how Bentham’s panopticon can be used to understand surveillance – often featuring the drill artists whose songs they’re analysing.
“You don’t even know this guy / He wears a tracksuit so you think he’s trappin’ (selling drugs)”, one of Skengdo’s lyrics, is used to talk about perception in the episode about Plato’s Cave.
It’s an extended metaphor used by the ancient Greek philosopher to explain how education can influence the way we perceive the world.
Plato’s Cave has chained-up people inside, looking at shadows on the wall in front of them. That’s all they’ve ever seen – and they believe it to be their reality. But they don’t know there are people standing behind them creating the shapes, using a fire. What they’re seeing isn’t actually real.
‘Life saving tools’
Ciaran hopes teaching their approach can encourage critical thinking and get people to stop and consider for a few extra seconds before acting.
“A lot of the young people connecting with our videos are inevitably going to be in quite important decision making situations that could cost them their life.
“Do you retaliate to your friend getting robbed? Why is someone stereotyping me right now? Is it because they hate me? Or is it because they’ve been reading media reports that tell them they should hate me?
“Those slightly more reflective decisions can be potentially life saving tools for young people.”
Learning theory like this can plant a seed, Reveal says: “We might not be there later to see it bear fruit. But if that seed is in them, that makes them think about something on a different level.”
The second episode is about catharsis – the idea of getting rid of negative emotions as a result of experiencing stories.
“By speaking on our own pain and re-examining our own stories, that can be a gateway into talking,” Reveal says in the episode.
He and Ciaran examine a number of songs where artists tell stories of losing loved ones to violence, or committing violence to others.
Removing drill videos ‘irresponsible’?
Drill music can feature graphic descriptions of committing violence – often reflecting situations that have happened in real life. It’s a big part of why judges have decided to censor artists, and videos have been removed from YouTube on request of the police.
Ciaran says one of the “most powerful things you can do” is allowing those lyrics into the conversation and speaking critically about them.
“You’re not having a responsible conversation about them if you’re just an adult who doesn’t understand the music and doesn’t understand the culture and you’re just saying, ‘No, this is bad’.
“That’s irresponsible in my mind.”
Reveal believes for wider society, normalisation of violence is a problem, but for people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder normalisation is “the first step in the process of reconciling the events of what happened to you and finding a way to move on”.
That’s why Reveal and Ciaran think teaching theories like catharsis and Plato’s Cave is “such a powerful thing”.
“To be able to put a name on a process for something they’re experiencing – that language empowers them to be able to look at it like, OK, this isn’t something that’s just happening to me or this isn’t something that I’m just experiencing, it’s wider than that.”
RoadWorks have had early talks with London’s Violence Reduction Unit, part of the London Mayor’s Office, about working together.
“We believe that fundamental to reducing violence is giving young people a voice,” its director Lib Peck tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
“Young people from the London music scene are key cultural influencers with powerful and persuasive reach. They can reach the thoughts and minds of young people and act as positive role models.”
‘This would have helped’
Abubakar Finiin has an offer to study PPE at Oxford University but his state school has never offered the opportunity to study that middle “p” – philosophy.
Ahead of his interview the 18-year-old North Londoner says he did a lot of self-teaching.
“I was trying to cover the basics. So yeah, Plato’s Republic, reading summaries, Aristotle came up a lot… Pythagoras.”
He says Drillosophy videos helped things make more sense.
“I didn’t think about applying it to modern day theory or drill music. I remember watching the video and thinking, ‘Yeah, this would have helped in my interview’.”
He thinks pupils would benefit from learning more critical thinking at school.
“In school there’s no proper thought behind it. There’s thought in the sense that you have to memorise what you’re learning, and you have to have some basic understanding.
“But there’s no thought in questioning why – or questioning is this right and wrong.”