Subversive Sounds: Drill and Afro-Pessimism
Written by Liam Sangmuah
In an odd way, drill music’s braggadocious rage and violent musings put me at ease. The thundering bass, up-tempo hi-hats, and aggressive prose call my body into action while simultaneously clearing my mind. It is unfiltered- there is nothing between my ear and the artist. The attitude is infectious, and the symptoms of this infection are a stank face and a steady bop. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, well, then you don’t.
Drill’s first iteration came out of Chicago. Teenage rappers like Chief Keef gained massive levels of commercial success making gritty music that presented unobstructed views of the reality of the inner city. Since then, the sound and the attitude behind it have traveled across oceans to the UK, Australia, Ghana, Brazil, and beyond. Despite its worldwide circulation, no place has seen drill music reach the level of cultural importance that it now has in London. Along with securing millions of views and streams, London’s young black drill musicians have felt the full force of the British state. The police actively try to suppress the expressions of these musicians, citing their “promotion” of violent conduct and linking their music to the rise of violent knife crime in the city.
To further the censorship and surveillance of drill musicians, certain media outlets have cultivated the notion that drill music is a council-estate virus for which a vaccine is urgently required. Despite their vigor, the forces aligned against drill music have not been successful. The removal of their videos and restriction of their live performances has not slowed drill music’s momentum. Drill artists have turned their backs on those who have mobilized fear and moral panic against them and continued to express themselves, even putting this fear and panic to use.
There is something to be said for planting yourself firmly in the madness of the world, among the problems it contains, and making yourself at home. Instead of glossing things over or searching for some illusive transcendence, some like to speak fro, where they stand. It just so happens that drill artists share a tendency- by way of their unfiltered expression of life “on road”- with the emerging academic discourse of Afro-pessimism.
Afro-pessimism wants to tell us that we are not ready, and perhaps we might never be ready. Anti-blackness might be a problem with no solution. Run it back one time. Frank Wilderson III, the principal author of Afro-pessimist theory and its namesake book released earlier this year, strives to “speak the analysis and rage that most black people are free only to whisper”. His analysis focuses on the unique and prelogical nature of anti-black violence, which he positions as an “essential antagonism”. This antagonism relies on the structural location of blackness in a paradigm created by a sea of gratuitous violence. He posits slavery as a relational dynamic, one that exists beyond the historical era of chattel slavery, between the human (master) and the black (slave). The stripping away of personhood, i.e. the process of becoming a slave (in relational terms), is a process that puts blackness outside of humanity and is one that may never end. As Saidiya Hartmann puts it, “the slave by contra-distinction defines liberty.” In other words, humanity is a construct with blackness as its antithesis, its eternal other, the eternal counterweight. It is through knowledge of its other that the construct of humanity gains coherence.
The theoretical gymnastics of Afro-pessimists can be difficult to account for on a personal level; as a black person I do not see myself as anybody’s slave and consider myself very much a human. When I was first introduced to Afro-pessimism, my main qualm was that while I felt that it does a great job of accounting for the conditions of anti-blackness, it made me question whether it was suggesting that that was all “blackness” was about. The answer came when I realized that it’s not about me, or who I think I am, or blackness as a cultural identity. Rather, it was about blackness as a structural position, one that exists outside of humanity, a figurative “outer space”. As Wilderson and other Afro-pessimist scholars articulated various symptoms of that position, some familiar feelings finally found their form.
The most resonant assertion in Wilderson’s book Afropessimism, and the one that sparked the connection I'm making between Afro-pessimism and drill music, is wrapped in his recollection of a shuttle ride to the San Francisco International Airport. As Wilderson entered the small shuttle, he was met with an awkward silence and a moment of hesitation on behalf of two other non-black riders and the driver. After this period of discomfort and a casual conversation about his work as a grad student, there was a shift in mood. Wilderson describes the shift as going from “being feared, to being tolerated, to being valued”. He had to accept his position in society as the phobic object and ensure that he did everything in his power to disguise that. This is a relatable feeling, the moment where through charm, vocabulary, dress, or demeanor you feel yourself change in somebody’s eyes. Their usual heuristic has failed, their discomfort subdued. You’ve become the object of their desire, someone they might even hold up as an example. In Wilderson’s shuttle ride, he fulfilled what he humorously calls the “first rule of international Negro diplomacy: make them feel safe”.
When Mizormac raps “One hand on the 4s, two hands on the sword” or SJ lyrics express his regret that “I didn’t catch him, I didn’t go back happy” they are refusing to engage with that mentality. Drill music refuses to make an appeal for its humanity. Even in the writing of this essay, I am forced to consider how the endeavor of engaging with this violent music and abrasive theory might put somebody off. I have to hope that that my account of the anti-black world and my focus on a genre of music that speaks of stabbing and killing doesn’t offend moral sensitivities or disrupt a readers’conception of themselves. I have to make you feel safe.
Although some drill lyrics probably do represent some grizzly recollection of a crime committed, the genre (and its lyrics) must be considered as a form of artistic performance. They make art to make money and to express themselves - those are the fundamentals. Like other aspects of black culture, drill music has been done a disservice due to its disconnection from history. It is not a phenomenon. Instead of being positioned as a form of artistry, with histories and traditions of similar artistry, these connections are severed (or at least, not explored) and drill music can then be positioned as a criminal endeavor. For example, the competitive nature of the music and the notion of us vs them have roots in the sound system culture that made its way to London straight from the Jamaican dancehall. The sound clash, or competition between warring sound systems, was won when one sound “killed” the other. In Dub Fi Dub, Bounty Killer rejects the idea that the opposing sound system has a better dub (sound) by proclaiming that “we a go murdah them, we ah go kill them”. Both drill rappers and dancehall MCs work to cultivate a sort of violent reputation as part of their performance. We’ve gone from real rude boys and babylon to “roadman" and “the jakes”. As a reggae MC might proclaim himself the don inna di area, drill originator LD boasts “I’m a king in 6, and the whole of Brixton my castle”.
In a world that positions the black as the phobic object, drill artists have made that notion their own. Their distinct strain of braggadocio attempts to cement their status - the most feared, the “hardest”. As another Afro-pessimist scholar Jared Sexton puts it, “the most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world”. My argument is that drill music makes this radical affirmation. In completely casting away the white gaze (a subversive act), drill music (as black music) has almost accepted its place outside of humanity. And from this exiled position, drill artists have earned themselves both money and fame.
In doing so, and with the music’s massive popularity, it also cements the “negrophobia” of the world. The celebrity status of these young black artists coupled with the content of their music creates a situation where “fear” and “blackness” continue to be joined at the hip, even if they are using that fear to their advantage. Blackness remains contingent on the black image: you’re not black until you’re a phobic object, until you can strike fear, until you’re “certi”.
So here we are - drill is both a form of resistance to the anti-black world and a manifestation of that same seemingly inescapable world. Luckily, Afro-pessimism was made for this predicament. It offers no redemptive arc. It is a turn towards the structural location of blackness without the desire to escape. It makes the attempt to survey that location to the broadest extent possible while resisting a simplifying gesture. Drill and Afro-pessimism find themselves united by this desire to put it all on the table. Although Afro-pessimism complicates the thinking around drill and the meaning of their performance, the act remains a simple one: they make music.
This life that we're livin' is risky
Apology if it's a violent song