As long as people have made music, other people have tried to censor it. The famously miserable song Gloomy Sunday, originally published in 1933, was banned by the BBC until 2002. George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows was banned in 1940 for its supposedly smutty lyrics. More recently, bands were banned from airplay during the Gulf War for having the wrong name, such as Massive Attack. And of course there have been attempts to ban entire genres of music such as heavy metal and gangsta rap.
It’s easy to laugh at this stuff, but sometimes it’s deadly serious. Take the case of drill music, a genre so subversive it can land you in prison for performing it. Guess which repressive regime that happens in?
Writing in The Observer, Kenan Malik describes the case of two drill musicians, Skengdo and AM from the Brixton group 410. Last month they were given nine-month suspended sentences for performing a song.
The case is deeply disturbing, because while the police claim that drill incites violence the two musicians have not been charged under the pertinent legislation. The instrument used against them was a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO), the latest incarnation of the infamous anti-social behaviour order (ASBO).
As Malik writes:
Skengdo and AM were served with an injunction without having been convicted of a crime. Breaking the injunction is a criminal offence. They’ve been criminalised for making violent music without having been convicted of any offence of violence.
I don’t understand drill music; it’s not really aimed at the oh-so-lucrative white middle-class middle-aged trans demographic. It may well glamourise violence, and it may well be linked with gang activity. But the law exists to protect all of us, and part of that protection means that we should not be criminalised without due process.
Index on Censorship is no fan of drill music, but it points out that this is hardly the first time minorities have used music to describe their lives.
Drill is less about inspiring violence and more about providing a narrative of lives defined by violence. They are telling the stories of their lives, minus the sugar-coating, just as other writers, poets and musicians have done before them.
The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.
Free expression is not the same thing as freedom from consequences. But there appears to be a curious double standard here.
The press’s free-speech brigade are quick to defend the speech of racist populists such as Tommy Robinson, of alt-right dog whistling and of all kinds of repellent individuals. Freedom of speech, after all, means freedom of speech for views many people will find repellent. And yet the Spectator and Spiked and all the other Voltaire-misquoting defenders of offensive expression have been completely silent about the censorship and criminalisation of drill musicians.
It’s strange, isn’t it? They defend the speech of the white Tommy Robinson, of the white Count Dankula, of the white Milo, of various other white alt-right types – sometimes even the speech of white people who are actual neo-Nazis. And yet they’re completely silent about the ongoing censorship and criminalisation of black musicians. I wonder what the difference could be?