Drillosophy: why UK rappers are teaching Plato in lockdown

A pair of London youth workers have created a new video series that aims to enliven philosophical concepts with the energy of drill music

Before coronavirus put the UK into lockdown, writer and youth worker Ciaran Thapar and rapper turned ethnomusicologist Mehryar Golestani (stage name Reveal) had been running their “inclusive music education programme” Roadworks, using genres such as drill to engage young people in critical thinking and academic subjects. With the timeline for the country’s restart still unclear, Thapar and Reveal have now carved out an online space for their music-led youth work to continue in the video series Drillosophy.

In each of six episodes, they take a philosophical concept and break it down using metaphors thrown up in some of drill and UK rap’s most popular songs. The first episode, released last week, is titled Skengdo’s Cave, teaching the concept of Plato’s cave – a metaphor concerning mental freedom and the perception of reality – by dissecting the lyrics of south London drill duo Skengdo x AM. This is philosophy made accessible for “those not paying attention to their science teacher on Zoom”, says Thapar.

“I’d been using Plato’s cave among lots of different thought experiments in youth work for a few years,” he continues. “There’s a reason why these ideas stand the test of time; there’s something about Plato’s cave that just clicks straight away. Young people are like: I’m with you.”

Each episode will be released via Mixtape Madness, an independent music platform whose YouTube channel has become a hub for Britain’s emerging rap and drill artists. In the first episode, Thapar and Reveal, with input from Skengdo x AM, take a critical look at a genre that has been demonised and censored by authorities. They home in on a Skengdo lyric – “You don’t even know this guy / He wears a tracksuit so you think he’s trapping” – and then, via animations, compare it with the notions of distorted reality raised by Plato. “We’re not trying to speak to young people,” Reveal says. “We’re trying to empower them so they can speak for themselves.”

Drill has become the prevailing sound of UK youth culture, a fraught illustration of the lives of teenagers engulfed in violence. And while the genre has detractors who point to its sometimes violent or taunting lyrics, both Drillosophy presenters feel that to understand the experiences of young people, their modes of expression need to be embraced.

Thapar says drill is “something so all-pervading and powerful, talked about in politics and parliament and mainstream media. It travels into prisons and debating societies in university. Something about drill is connecting with a lot of people, on a human level. If you ignore that, if you don’t take that into account when talking to young people, you’re basically denying what they’re seeing around them, you’re not existing in the same world as they are.”

Other episodes in the series will intertwine Aristotle’s concept of catharsis with lyrics by Krept & Konan, Knucks, Pop Smoke and Ambush, and use English philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a roadmap for exploring why some rappers obscure their faces with balaclavas. Each episode, Reveal says, will be supported with online material to explain the concepts in detail, and for parents, carers and youth workers, provide important context on drill as a genre.

“By embracing drill,” Thapar continues, “by trying to tackle it – not singing and dancing about it like it’s got no problems – but by really trying to get to grips with it, I think engages with a certain level of the truth. As a youth worker, teacher, educator, if you’re trying to engage with them on that level it’s really powerful.”

The capacity for youth work in London has been shattered, Thapar says, by years of austerity and government cuts that have adversely affected the young and the vulnerable in the city. The situation has been further strained by the Covid-19 epidemic, with Thapar concerned for “vulnerable young people trapped in difficult circumstances for a long time”. To combat the latter, they have also been conducting mentoring sessions via Zoom (a move facilitated by Brixton-based organisation Spiral) in attempts to stay connected to the young people they work with.

Ciaran Thapar and Reveal.
Ciaran Thapar and Reveal. Photograph: Roadworks

The lockdown, Reveal says, has interrupted their usual setup of hosting workshops from classrooms. “But,” he adds, “one thing that never surprised me is how resilient young people are when adapting. They say when you’re young, your bones knit together quicker. So many young people are used to living with communication, and technology, that they’ve actually made that transition into this digital era that has been forced on us because of lockdown really successfully.”

Drill is a genre that has embraced the internet and technology from its inception. Its early videos leaked out of Chicago via YouTube, while in the UK, many artists have trumped a lack of traditional media support by thriving on pockets of social media, DIY YouTube channels and even Reddit forums. Beyond music, drill points to the attitudes, behaviours and platforms that steer the attention of the people youth workers are often working with, and so platforms such as Drillosophy meet them on their own turf.

“Technologically, the generational divide between teenagers and even ourselves is so huge and growing,” Thapar says, “let alone for a certain generation of decision-makers in politics and education, that I think we’ve got to use whatever we can to connect with young people. Drill, for me, represents music colliding with technological change in a way that we’ve never seen before and we’re just learning about. To ignore it, not only ignores truth but also ignores the technological world we live in.” With Roadworks and Drillosophy, he and Reveal are showing a new way out of the cave.


Aniefiok Ekpoudom

The GuardianTramp

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