At the nucleus the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, is a road that local young people call Front Street. Words on a red love heart stuck inside one shop window read: “Justice for Mark Duggan”, referring to the 29-year-old who was shot dead by police in August 2011, prompting protests and then riots across English cities.
Eight years on, Duggan’s 18-year-old son, Kemani – trying to make it as a drill rapper under the moniker Bandokay – believes he is still dealing with the fallout. “Whenever the police] see me, they stop me,” he says. “I get what they’re trying to do – they’re trying to take weapons. But I know they purposely stop me more than anyone else. They know who I am. They know who my dad is. So that’s why I’m trying to go through music and do something positive, so they don’t have nothing to say about me.”
I wait to meet Duggan with his manager, Isaac Densu, who also grew up round here. He sits beside me on a black metal railing as buses trundle by. “After 35 years darkness, there can be light,” he says, referring to the 1985 riot that put the north London estate’s name on the national media map. Few stories since, particularly after Duggan’s death, have managed to redirect the violent narrative Broadwater Farm in the public imagination. Yet Densu, 33, believes things can change.
He speaks passionately “a unity among us. We’re known as one the most notorious estates in the UK. We want to change that. Through music, using the technology available to us, we’re coming together to run a business.”
Arriving with Bandokay is Double Lz: the pair are members OFB, AKA Original Farm Boys, one the most talked-about drill acts, thanks to their unapologetically raw and dramatic collective style. Bandokay raps in quick, aggressive barks; Double Lz’s voice is deep and pained. (The third member the band, SJ, who shot to popularity with fans for his solo anthem Youngest in Charge is not around today.) “Every day it gets more crazy,” Densu says, chuckling and shaking his head. He is talking about the messages he receives from artists wanting to collaborate and record label powerplayers keen to invest in OFB’s ascent.
Business is booming, then, but against the odds. “I could give youngers jobs helping to run the camera team, social media, marketing. It’s just that we’re lacking in resources.” Densu points across the road at hollowed-out shopfronts. “They were designed to house youth enterprises, but nothing round here has much value.” He says a youth centre “would have been helpful as a place to organise and train young people who have nothing else to do here”. A community centre was instead sold f to a private company and rebranded as a gym, “and the council aren’t going to help us”.
UK drill music is characterised by a thumping, swinging bassline that sounds like the engine a doubledecker bus; it is stitched together by tinny, marching-band snare drums and haunting piano or synth melodies. Since it took f in London, it has veered towards the fast-paced energy grime, its wise old musical uncle, and away from its roots in Chicago drill and US trap. Unforgiving lyricism about the extremes disfranchised, hypermasculine adolescent life – nihilistic references to knife violence (ten in the form provocation and bleak, detailed descriptions drug dealing) – fills nearly every song.
Many people are concerned about the music’s supposed capacity to entrench real-life violence. UK drill’s 19-year-old former poster boy Unknown T – real name Daniel Lena – has been charged with the murder 20-year-old Steven Narvaez-Jara. His case raises questions about the ethics violent music and the characters who make drill, and its ability to influence young minds.
But amid a moral panic in the media, valid criticism has collapsed into censorship. In February, Skengdo and AM were given suspended jail sentences for performing one their songs; an unprecedented moment in British legal history. Digga D has to submit lyrics to the police before releasing them. All three artists, as well as others, including another OFB affiliate RV and members Brixton group 410, are forbidden from entering or even rapping about particular London postcodes. They have had their freedom squeezed by overwhelmed law enforcers eager to be seen to be doing something about violence among young people.
Drill has received broadly negative attention since it was belatedly discovered by the mass media in 2018 – but it is also seeing increasing commercial success: artists such as DigDat, Russ and Digga D have reached the UK Top 20, and London-style drill instrumentals and vocal intonations are being employed by artists in Dublin, New York and Sydney. UK drill is part a power shift in urban culture over the past decade, forged not by big record labels or radio stations but democratised technology and grassroots scenes.
“People know where I’m coming from, and that what I’m saying in my music is a reality for me,” says Bandokay, who has his father’s first name tattooed along the side his left hand. Days before we meet, Bandokay and Double Lz, 18 and 17 respectively, returned from Ibiza, where they performed alongside their fellow Broadwater Farm native and drill breakout star Headie One, who Bandokay names as his most significant musical influence alongside the Brixton group 67 (“six-seven”).
“It feels good, still,” Double Lz says their ascent.
“I’m trying to get out the hood, and the easiest way doing that is making music,” says Bandokay. “It’s my way escaping gang life and achieving a better life. I wanna move my mum into a house. Music puts legal money into my account. No one helps us round here. So music is the only way.”
Bandokay says it was a “fun, nice experience” growing up on Broadwater Farm. Why does he want to escape, then? “I wanna stop being harassed by police. Ever since they killed my dad, they have been on to me.” In June, the Daily Mail reported that the DJ Tim Westwood – whom the publication has ten used as a whipping boy for his influential role in the London music scene – was accused glorifying murder by hosting a “street gang” on his YouTube freestyle platform. The piece mentioned Bandokay alongside his father’s name in the headline. “They spoke about it like I’m glamorising murders.”
Since late 2018 and the release Bad B on the Nizz, when they covered their faces in their videos like many young drill artists do to avoid being recognised by members their communities and families, to thwart surveillance from police teams and stop prosecutors using videos as evidence in court, OFB have soared to hood stardom. Like all drill collectives starting out, they garnered most their popularity crisply filmed music videos on YouTube, including Purge and Reality. Their first mixtape, Front Street, is out at Halloween. The group’s steep upward trajectory shows how drill has become a source empowerment and income for poor, black British teenage boys facing a vacuum prospective career opportunities, unaddressed trauma from impoverished home lives and combat on the roads, and the daily ritual disproportionate police attention.
OFB’s most acclaimed anthem is called Ambush, in which the three members go back-to-back in shortened bursts bars, as if fighting for space over a pirate radio set. It has enabled them to stand out from the fiercely competitive, citywide ecosystem drillers. “Now, after that song, I’m seeing everyone else come on that back-to-back ting,” Bandokay says. “But it’s calm because I understand that’s the game – everyone learns f each other.”
In May, the song’s video, filmed among the warren walkways and car parks Broadwater Farm, was removed from YouTube. It had been watched more than 2m times. This sort obstacle became commonplace for drill artists, as the Metropolitan police pursued a vague crackdown on videos they deem to be inciting violence (this summer, YouTube announced it would no longer be deleting drill videos, but would continue to work with police to “take action when needed”).
In response, under Densu’s guidance, OFB edited out any potentially provocative references to specific places, individuals and events before re-uploading the video. In July, with no warning or explanation, the group’s own YouTube channel – a core infrastructural tool for any drill outfit trying to succeed in the industry – was deleted for a day before being reinstated.
I ask the pair what they feel about drill’s censorship. “I do get where they’re coming from, so man just has to lower it down, so everyone can vibe to it and there aren’t any complaints,” Bandokay replies. “Obviously, some things are going to provoke people. But it just depends on how people take it. Some people hear their name being called out, and they don’t care. Some people may take it to the bottom their heart.” One the main drivers drill artists’ popularity is their willingness to call out “opps”, or rivals, entertaining fans tracing the music’s social drama – and, to its critics, prompting potentially violent disputes. But like other experimenters making reformed iterations the genre – dance-themed such as Russ’s Gun Lean, polished and playful such as Digga D’s No Diet or positive/spiritual, such as the church-cum-rap group Hope Dealers (a drill collective who rap about being Christians) – OFB are keen to move away from that norm. “We’re switching it up, doing clean music and trying to get to the better side everything.”
This need to get to the “better side” is crucial. Some drill artists have been suspected and convicted violent crimes. But it should not be assumed that the music is dangerous in and itself; nor is its existence surprising as an undeniable expression the truths the artists’ lives, if we acknowledge the dark conditions from which it stems.
The stories told in drill lyrics are ten horrific: returning home filthy after spending a week dealing drugs in a faraway coastal town; cleaning your enemy’s blood from your mum’s kitchen knife with hot water and bleach; feeling scared and clumsy the first time you fire a gun; suspecting that the hard pillow a prison cell bunk bed is giving you acne. But they are also exactly what makes the music so rich as a cultural resource that ought to be mined, not shunned or demonised by educators and policymakers.
Drill is a uniquely clear window through which to see where cities and youth culture are heading in austerity Britain, where council and state school budgets, police forces, and youth services have been slashed. When more than 4.5 million children live in poverty, the temptation for teenagers getting quick money in the illicit drug economy is stronger than ever, and exploitative “county lines” networks are leaving vulnerable young people and their families devastated.
School exclusions have risen, leading to the oversubscription pupil referral units (PRUs) and other alternative provisions, which already struggle to intercept the conveyor belt to prison. These forces are churning out disengaged young people – disproportionately boys colour – who have little hope for a bright future, despite living in the fifth largest economy in the world.
“I didn’t get to experience school like normal people,” Bandokay says. “Soon after I lost my dad, I started secondary school, but I got kicked out three months after because I couldn’t control my behaviour.” He subsequently attended several PRUs and spent little time in a consistent educational setting. I ask if he ever felt properly supported by any services throughout this period, and he shakes his head. As a youth worker, I have met countless boys who have experienced similar patterns derailment from a young age and who therefore struggle to meet the pressurising demands their pastorally underresourced, exams-focused academy schools. “I’m still smart, though … don’t get it twisted!” Bandokay adds with a smirk.
Does the pair understand why people show concern about drill lyrics? “People who are not used to listening to this type music think we are talking mad,” Bandokay says. “But if you actually know me, and know what I’ve been through, then you know where I’m coming from, and you’ll be proud me.” He looks up over my shoulder to acknowledge the arrival his uncle, Marlon Duggan – Mark’s younger brother – who takes a seat on the wall next to me. “People who understand this music, like my uncle, are proud me. If it wasn’t for music, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t know how I’d be earning my money. It’s keeping me out jail. I thank God things are changing, you feel me?”
I say my goodbyes and stand up to leave, passing a group men flicking pound coins on to the ground, trying to land them close to a brick wall. Densu leads me out. “A positive story can come out this,” he says, picking up his phone – probably someone making an inquiry about OFB.