Cosmonauts Avenue

As a child, my parents only let me do something if that action fell into one of two boxes: 

  • Would it polish the family reputation? 
  • Would it further my dad’s ambitions of becoming a Bollywood actor and playback singer?

So, at age five, when I approached my father’s burgundy armchair and asked him whether I could have a pet chicken, the look he gave suggested I may as well have asked him to keep that chicken in my granny’s colostomy bag. Throughout our youths, my sister and I both struggled to uncover the reasoning our parents followed. This uncertainty resulted in ‘the Vat’ – a device comprising of two large plastic tubs glued together so, from a birds-eye view, the creation resembled a large pair of goggles. We stored the Vat inside our parents’ garage – a place so cluttered that whatever found its way into the room often disappeared. Over the years, my sister and I took note of what our parents did and did not agree to, and put the note in the appropriate tub. 

In its early days, the vat of acceptance homed ideas like ordering a family subscription to ‘Cineblitz’ , a popular Bollywood magazine whose pages were dominated by celebrity gossip and offers for discounted Indian spice mixes. Also making an appearance was my suggestion to visit Southall – a region of London that held a significant south-Asian presence. My father decided to follow my hunch that Mithun Chakraborty, a family favourite Bollywood actor and recent lead of ‘The Don’, would be dining in one of the fusion Chinese-Indian restaurants later that evening. Chakraborty did not surface but my hunches appeared with growing consistency. We would dine out in our best clothes, with my father spending hours stuck in a trademark Chakraborty pose: feet spread out in alpha-male dominance, hands behind the head, with a facial expression of tender romantic heroism. Each time, we left without having sighted the star. In hindsight, had I known that my father’s wish to become a Bollywood fixture was so desperate and all-consuming, I would never have indulged my love for chicken tikka chow mein as I did. Meanwhile, contributing to the vat of rejection was my sister’s wish for karate lessons and my request, aged ten, to take my neighbour’s dog for twice-weekly walks. At the time, my mother lifted a haphazard-looking eyebrow towards her forehead and simply said ‘no’ to each request. 

Such was the way my mother and father dished out refusals. The only difference was my father’s raised eyebrow stood ten inches higher in the air. Twenty years on, my parents’ eyebrows rarely have cause to venture so far. A lot has changed in the intervening years, with myself and my sister having emotionally, if not physically, moved significantly away from our parents. Both vats met their ends some time ago, their space being taken in the garage by my father’s singing voice. I look back at his renditions of ‘Dil Deewana’ and ‘Mujhe Neend Na Aaye’ with some affection. I feel sad that his self-imposed distance, between himself and the youthful versions of myself and my sister, meant that we could never share his passion with him. These days, it is myself and my partner who have to negotiate the distance conundrum between ourselves and our ten-year-old daughter. Given that my two-year-old boy is, for the time being, exempt from such issues, he often plays the role of arbiter.  

To some, the role of arbiter comes naturally – my great uncle for example, an Indian diplomat during the 1950s, would often boast of his abilities to transform a tense atmosphere into one of eye-watering tenderness. My son, at the moment of writing, possesses no such gift. He uses one of two strategies when my partner and I are in discussions with our daughter. One involves finding any liquid that may be lying around or, if none is forthcoming, generating his own and wetting the floor. This is often followed by his own raucous laughter. The second concerns him entering his sister’s room and, in an act of sibling solidarity, re-situating her most precious belongings in case they were in jeopardy of being removed. It’s impossible to predict which strategy he’ll adopt. The last time my son had reason for such action was two days ago, when a discussion was taking place between myself, my partner and our daughter about an inappropriate gesture one of her friends shared with her in a video. 

The video sharing took place on one of a number of whatsapp groups my daughter and her school friends have set up. In fairness, myself and my partner only found out about the video because our daughter told us, wanting to know the context behind what her friend had sent her. The video consisted of one of my daughter’s friends shouting expletives and various gang names repeatedly, whilst making an effort to draw attention to a particular hand gesture. The gesture consisted of the girl putting her thumb and index finger together whilst spreading her remaining fingers wide apart. I immediately recognised it as the ‘Blood Killa’ hand signal used by rival gangs to challenge and insult members of the Blood gang – a gang that was founded in Los Angeles during the 1970s. With the advent of social media, gang affiliations have transcended geographical space, with gang hand gestures appearing on social media to be viewed by young people unaware of their contexts and politics. In part, I think my daughter’s interest in the wider reasons behind her friend’s act stems from the work she’s seen me do with Amnesty International. For the past three years, I’ve been visiting schools and universities to talk about drill music and, specifically, what it means to its practitioners and wider society in the context of gang membership and youth crime. I’ve often spent nights watching drill videos and preparing talks about why this music genre, with all its inherent violence and disturbing content, cannot be taken as a scapegoat for youth violence in Britain.

Spawning from the South Side of Chicago during the early years of this decade, drill music is one of the most controversial sub-genres of hip-hop. The genre has travelled well and is a highly popular form of expression in parts of urban Britain. Some British politicians, such as Harriet Harman and John Woodcock, have voiced opposition to the drill communities developing quickly in socially deprived areas, such as inner-city London and Birmingham. My little girl once floored me with a question delivered with all the candyfloss bluntness a child can muster: 

“Dad, why does music make people want to kill each other?”

The answer I gave her is that music cannot make someone want to cause harm to another person, without there being a great many other reasons, like loneliness, mental illness and awful experiences. Clearly, there’s much more to it than that and, it’s true, music can influence the way that we think whilst justifying particular thoughts. With my daughter now ten, as a father I’m concerned about young people being exposed to media they are unable to contextualise. After my daughter showed my partner and I the clip, my first impulse was to contact her friend’s parents to discuss what her friend had sent her. Our daughter, however, felt strongly that this would alienate her from her peers. Some of the intricacy of her points were lost in my son’s laughter as he urinated on an assortment of sentimental objects. 

We respected our daughter’s wishes, understanding the fear that young people have about alienating themselves from their peers. But we both felt uncomfortable. This was us, witnessing someone pelting a rotten egg at our daughter’s innocence, and standing back with our daughter only holding an egg cup as part of her defence. We spoke to our daughter about what the gesture meant, why it is symbolic of a number of our society’s ills and why, in adopting the gesture, her friend showed ignorance that required intervention. But, knowing it would have caused great upset and anxiety were we to have directed this intervention towards her friend, we decided to speak to her school leaders more generally about teaching our youth about inappropriate behaviours. With regards to her own relationship with her friend, the better course of action was to let our daughter navigate her own path. 

The episode got me thinking about the discomfort felt by people in responsibility who’ve accepted that holding back is the best course, which, in turn, got me thinking about what’s been happening in the drill scene these past few months. On 12 July, The Canary reported that the managing director of YouTube UK, Ben Owen Wilson, decided that Drill music will not be banned from the site. Wilson’s justification is that the videos “provide a place for those too often without a voice.” Having worked passionately for Amnesty U.K to demonstrate the need for avenues of expression to be granted for those on the margins of society, I can fully understand this sentiment. Nevertheless, the 30-year-old dad part of me, grumbling around in a baggy grey jumper smeared with dirty hand prints and child snot, is oddly uncertain about this being the best course of action. 

I certainly don’t agree with the alternative opinions voiced by key figures within the Metropolitan police, like the Met commander, Jim Stokely, who told the Times

“New measures would mean officers no longer needed to prove that videos and social media posts were linked to specific acts of violence to secure a conviction for incitement to violence.”

So, by Stokely’s justification, a drill music artist could have their livelihood and form of creative expression taken away because an officer believed the music could, in the future, be the cause of violence. Forgive me for using a crude metaphor, but this seems oddly like my partner telling me she’s removing my favourite wedge of cheese from the fridge because, although currently not mouldy or causing anyone any harm, it could get rotten and, should someone decide to make a cheese and ham baguette whilst blindfolded and suffering from a blocked nose, they might put the future rotten cheese in the baguette and get food poisoning. A similar mindset to Stokely’s was demonstrated by Britain’s former home secretary, Sajid Javid, who, prior to YouTube’s decision not to ban drill from the platform, stated: 

“My message to these companies is we are going to legislate and how far we go depends on what you decide to do now.” 

For real positive change to occur on Britain’s urban streets and, in my opinion, the mindsets of young people more generally, people in responsibility need to abandon their need for control, replacing it with an outlook that takes heed of the needs of young people. Both the authoritarian parenting that my parents exhibited, and the reductionist rhetoric demonstrated by the Metropolitan Police and senior government figures, leads to a breakdown of trust, fostering confusion and alienation. In the case of the drill community, a number of drill artists have attributed this genre of music as a key reason they have avoided prison, or worse. On an episode of Good Morning Britain, aired in the U.K on 22 July, rappers Krept and Konan defended drill music whilst drawing attention to its benefit to urban society. Krept argued: 

“If they (the British state) were to ban drill music, is violence going to stop? It’s not. They’re using it as a scapegoat to distract from the things they’re not doing. They need to be going out in the community and helping youth clubs, foundations, get kids off the streets.”

My own relationship with my daughter has been far better since I recognised I was veering along a similar thought-process to my parents, albeit without the same motivations of Bollywood stardom and family image. There is a need for youth workers, social workers, religious leaders, probation officers and parents to be given the resources to reach out and engage with young people. The Guardian recently reported that, between April 2018 and March 2019, knife crime in England and Wales showed an 8% rise. London was responsible for 32% of the incidents recorded. But this rise followed police numbers, in England and Wales, falling to their lowest point in almost four decades. Whilst overemphasising the role of drill music in violent crime rises, senior figures are underplaying the importance of police and youth workers being given the time and resources to understand what needs gangs are giving to gang members, like safety, love, belonging, shelter and purpose, which are not being given by schools, families and broader communities. 

Without considering the wider reasons behind youth gang crime, it is easy to look at drill lyrics and instinctively want the genre banned on social media. One of the most prominent drill acts in Britain, OFB, glorifies violence in explicit and provocative lyrics. In ‘Ambush’, SJ raps the following: 

“I’m on the O, ten toes with my soldiers, I don’t beef my age, I got beef with olders

Man crash this corn off motors, this shotgun slaps and it flings my shoulder

Tion Wayne is a fucking joker, come carni tryna spill juice, that’s soaker

Buck four, he tried run with his poker, he’s with DV and they both got poked up”

OFB’s call out to Tion Wayne is in keeping with the traditions of the drill genre. This is what makes drill so explosive – local rappers insulting each other on social media, leading to tragic consequences on the streets. But how do we expect these young people to respond to gang conflict? Baking treacle sponge puddings in flowery aprons, before skipping around to offer warm slices to other gang members whilst, perhaps, playfully dotting a spot of flour on the noses of the particularly tough looking ones, is not in keeping with ideas of masculinity, status and respect in these communities. 

The acceptance and rejection vats in my childhood garage only told half the story. There was a litany of requests my parents gave my sister and I, only these weren’t recorded. From my perspective, I suppose it was too painful to record instances that drew attention to how different I was from my parents’ ideal. My mother, most often, would chastise me for not being more sporty – overlooking a body whose talents were more suited to throwing a ball of dough onto a chopping board and sweetening it with cinnamon and sugar, than hurling a ball over a field of grass. Meanwhile, my father would insult me for my lack of interest in Pythagoras’ theorem and vocal exercises. Neither engaged with what brought me a feeling of satisfaction and achievement – writing poems and telling stories. 

Clearly, a state is not a parent – it lacks a pulse and the ability to raise an eyebrow, but the British state holds considerable power to shape young lives. For the rapper AM, drill music offers young urban people a platform to discuss issues of importance to their communities: “We don’t always talk about violence, we talk about solutions, we talk about economic problems, we talk about the repercussions of violence. We cover a load of different ways to understand what’s going on.” This making sense of what’s going on, and the ability to recount that to others within and outside the community, inspires hope. But, up until now, the state response has only served to blacken that positivity. Another rapper, Skengdo highlights the impact of this state response on young drill artists: “When they want to talk about drill it’s always negativity. I don’t want to be seen in that light 24/7.” For drill artists, as for the wider youth community, a sense of image matters and is keenly strung up with identity. 

The British state would do well to develop and show an understanding of what drill means to its practitioners. However, we need to be mindful of the power of drill music to stir conflict between rival gangs. The state needs to resource and train youth workers to understand the attractions of gang membership within particular communities, and to create initiatives that provide alternative avenues for young people to access what they could only previously obtain through their gangs – respect, loyalty, community, direction and self-worth. This would mean the state having to acknowledge their mistakes and demonstrating how they’ve learned from them. The act would likely cause them some embarrassment. But isn’t a red face better than bloodied gravel? The non-communicative, never-compromising route my parents went down ultimately led to confusion, mistrust and resentment. My partner and I have been careful not to go down this route with our children.. As people with responsibility, the onus is on us to put our mistakes on display in the family home, there for our children to see and observe how we’ve learned from them. My garage will not be home to an instrument built to make sense of parental logic. 

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