Poverty, violence and Black music

As festival line-ups begin to be announced, we have to thank everyone who has fought for Black music to be platformed as it deserves. Particularly Jamal Edwards (R.I.P). That fight has been multi-generational and the political reasons are often unexplored. 

Last year I had the pleasure of attending Wireless Festival. If the joy of simply being outside wasn’t enough, my excitement was compounded by the prospect of seeing a line-up featuring U.K. artists with star power genuinely matching their American counterparts. Following the release of the fantastic Made In The Pyrex, Digga D was on everyone’s must-see list. He is one of the first U.K. artists to be given a criminal behaviour order that polices his creative output, with content deemed to “incite or encourage violence” putting him at risk of arrest. As such he has become the face of debates around the policing of lyrical content in the U.K.

There are typically binary arguments when discussing music’s influence on youth violence. That either violent music incites violent crime and should be curtailed. Or that all artists should have freedom of expression. Standing in the predominantly white middle-class teenage audience gleefully rapping along to lyrics about gangsterism, the lack of nuance of both arguments was illuminated. 

The demonisation of Black culture is a central instrument of white supremacy. Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack expounds the way that Black expression has been equated to criminality. As such, it can be feel like a betrayal acknowledging any element of Black cultural expression could be harmful. But Enroy Ruddock boastfully rapping drill lyrics on Snapchat after murdering Emmanuel Lukenga or grammar schoolboy Joshua Molnar doing the same whilst actually in court on trial for stabbing Yousuf Makki to death, point to drill having at least some influence on youth violence. Whether it’s drug culture or fashion, music’s influence on young people is undeniable. So it would be disingenuous to claim that drill music has no influence. Whether drill incites violence or not is the wrong question. What we should question is why artists are inspired to make violent music in the first place and why it is subsequently declared the main cause of social denigration. 

Like all art, music reflects life. The lived experience of Black people in Jamaica, the U.S. and Britain is woven spatially through migratory patterns, experientially through racial subjugation and culturally through music. What also unites the three nations is the way that political shifts to the right have enabled the drug trade to thrive. Criminal gangs using violence to vie for control inevitably follows. Political administrations then seek to blame music for the violence that they expedited in the first place.

The U.S.A

Video: YouTube/Top Dawg Entertainment

“You know why we’re crack babies? Because we’re born in the 80’s. That’s A.D.H.D crazy”


Kendrick Lamar - A.D.H.D

This is in reference to the crack epidemic of Reagan Administration. What is less known about the crack epidemic, is that President Reagan allowed cocaine from South America to be trafficked into the U.S. then sold in predominantly poor Black neighbourhoods. The money generated was used to arm guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua, in an attempt to overthrow the countries socialist regime. Destabilised Left-wing Latin American countries was part of the U.S.’ cold war effort. The shift in popular Black music from the perennially upbeat disco of the 70’s, to the grittier political rap of the late 80’s, reflected a generation who’s adolescence was punctuated by mass incarceration, drugs and violence. 


Video: YouTube/Damian Marley

“Old man to Pickney, so wave unnuh hand if you with me
To see the sufferation sick me
Dem suit no fit me, to win election dem trick we
Then dem don't do nuttin' at all”


 Damian Marley -Welcome to Jamrock

When Edward Seaga was elected Prime Minister of Jamaica in 1980, the country was in financial disarray due to the socialist policies of his predecessor Michael Manley proving economically disastrous. Seaga chose to combat this with hardline austerity, which spiked unemployment and the cost of living exponentially (sound familiar fellow Brits?). At the same time the government were averse to cracking down on the drug trade. Seaga (and Reagan) knew that might lead to an already disenfranchised population electing another socialist party, which was deemed worse than austerity fuelled suffering. The continued presence of the drug trade naturally came with the continued presence of the criminal violence that a drug trade facilitates. This case differs to Britain and the U.S. because I would argue it wasn’t wholly a case of right-wing politics sparking financial downturn, or a heightened drug trade that influenced the shift in music. Obviously it would be dogmatic to claim that something staying the same (the drug trade) somehow inspired a shift in music. It was the political outlook of the citizens.

I would argue that musicians, like any citizen, are tapped into the social consciousness of where they live. That social consciousness is largely informed by the political administration. Socialist politics take more of a community focused outlook. This would explain why the music of the 70’s reflected a more holistic world view, for example themes of Pan-Africanism. Politics of individualism would therefore naturally proliferate under a more right-wing party. The heightened xenophobia and racism we’ve seen in Britain post-austerity is an example of how economic scarcity makes people reject notions of togetherness and hone in on their immediate community. Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton’s The Rough Guide to Reggae, 3rd edition goes into more depth about how the shift from roots reggae (targeted at an international audience) to a more insular music making approach focused on drugs, violence and sexuality. With this in mind we can see how the hardline austerity of Jamaica in the 80’s would reduce hope and belief in the value of domestic and international communities expressed in reggae music. Leaving a vacuum for more hedonistic music to fill.


Video: YouTube/M1llionz

So how on earth do you expect me to show remorse or be any different? (How?)
I come from poverty, I needed money 
Instead of helping me, they sent me to prison (dickheads)”


M1llionz - Intro

Despite hardline austerity not working in 80’s Jamaica (or ever really) David Cameron and George Osbourne decided to give it another go in 2010. Cuts to social programs and benefits led swathes of disenfranchised young men to turn to crime. Which I’m not justifying or condemning, but that’s what happened. The resulting drill music is the product of increased crime as a direct result of increased poverty. Blaming societies ills on music is a political diversionary tactic. Musicians with violent lyrics are just telling you the truth of your nation when politicians won’t. Don’t shoot the messenger. 

Article by Martyn Ewoma


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