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Clarence Page: This is not a 'drill.' NY mayor tackles Chicago-born 'drill' rap culture

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Chief Keef's hologram concert was stopped midway through the first song at Wolf Lake Memorial Park in Hammond, Indiana, July 25, 2015. The concert was originally planned for Chicago.
E. Jason Wambsgans/TNS

Chicago, historically known for its jazz, blues and electronic "house" dance music, more recently has given birth to something called "drill" rap, a hip-hop subgenre that New York's new Mayor Eric Adams says he wants to ban.

Haven't heard of "drill" rap? Neither had Adams, a former New York Police Department captain, until he heard it linked to a recent surge in the Big Apple's violence, including the deaths of some local rap artists.

Then his son, who works for Jay-Z's RocNation, showed him some drill videos. He was shocked.

"It was alarming," he told a group of reporters last week and said he would press social media platforms to exercise their "civic and corporate responsibility" to take the videos off the internet.

But what about free speech?

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"We pulled Trump off Twitter because of what he was spewing," the Democratic mayor said. "Yet we are allowing music (with the) displaying of guns, violence. We allow this to stay on the sites."

As another Black father who has to turn to his son to understand all things hip-hop, I sympathize. When it comes to outraging their elders, drill rap disturbingly seems to crack the walls between fantasy and real violence.

Named after street slang for killing, especially by gunfire, drill has been traced to the early 2010s in Chicago's South Side. Known for dark, joyless, violent, nihilistic and threatening themes, police have associated drill with beefs and violent acts, sometimes carried out while the raps stream on social media.

Yet, like any other music craze, the style took off, entered the mainstream of music purchases and enriched a new generation of young low-income stars -- and helped spawn tragic incidents of youth violence, often gang-related across this nation and Europe.

But, upset as he is, Mayor Adams, who was elected largely by an electorate fed up with rising crime rates, could learn a lot from Chicago's experiences about the futility of trying to fight crime by fighting rap artists.

For example, I am easily reminded of how former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office blocked a planned 2015 concert featuring Chief Keef, born Keith Farrelle Cozart, a widely recognized founding father of drill. Keef wanted to do the concert via hologram. The mayor's office said without irony that the "stop the violence" fundraiser posed a "significant public safety risk."

Keef, then 19, responded by threatening to run for mayor. Why not? The city's soaring violent crime rate was already earning it the nickname "Chiraq," to the chagrin of many Chicagoans, including me.

New York City's drill scene, already reeling from a surge in violence like too many others during the pandemic, was shaken by three high-profile incidents of violence in its drill community, leading to the mayor's announcement.

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But days after sounding like he wanted to ban drill, he met with a group of drill rappers, saying he wants to work with the artists and others to address gun violence in ways that work.

We certainly have had many experiences with measures that don't work in quelling perceived evils of young people's musical tastes. Tipper Gore, upset by the raunchy lyrics in her daughter's copy of Prince's "Darling Nikki," launched a crusade in the 1980s that led to the music industry's use of "Parental Advisory" stickers on CDs.

Good try, but as my own young son and his friends at the time showed me, the stickers probably did more to make the songs attractive to young inquiring ears than steer them away. Similar results followed Democratic politician and civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker's spirited campaign against so-called "gangster rap," grandfather of today's drillers, in the 1990s.

The lesson from such experiences is that we should not confuse the symptoms from the disease in dealing with the hellish violence, poverty, fractured families and other problems that plague the lives of our less-fortunate communities and young people.

Rap, which Chuck D. of the '80s socially and politically conscious group Public Enemy, famously called "the Black America's CNN," always has been an expression of problems more than the problem itself. It's not the message that counts as much as how the rest of us respond to it.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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