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Gangland: Tracking the Slow Rise of Drill in Nigeria

Still a burgeoning sub-genre in Nigeria, drill is steadily becoming a go-to sound for young artists documenting survivalist themes through their music. We track the slow rise of the budding, hard-hitting rap sound in Nigeria.

In 2012, Chicago rapper Chief Keef burst onto the hip hop scene and changed the game forever. His music style, known as drill, was different because while the mainstream rappers of his day were either pop-oriented or obsessed with wordplay and metaphors, Keef opted for simplistic, dark lyrics that illustrated his everyday life. We are a year short of a decade from ‘Love Sosa’, and Chief Keef has already influenced multiple generations of rappers in different places, from Brixton to Australia to Ireland, and back to Brooklyn, drill music lives on.

Music is an ever-evolving organism: growing, absorbing, and changing constantly. Sounds find roots in different places; sounds are changed in different places, and with every beat, there is a new style, a new story to tell. When drill found its way to England, it became faster, influenced by its British grime counterpart. The story was the same: hard lives, crime, women, and wine, but the style was different, the words were different. Given the constant exchange of musical talent and styles between Nigeria and the UK, it is no surprise that in the course of drill spreading its tentacles everywhere, it has touched the soft and fertile earth of the Lagos music space. Although the current space for drill in Nigeria’s music capital can’t exactly be described as a “scene”, it is a slowly developing path that is worth keeping an eye on.

The main standout of drill music is its insistence on the importance of expression. There is the freedom to shun traditional rap formats like rhyming and pacing for the artistes and focus purely on passing the message across. For Nigerian producers, drill offers an opportunity to explore new sounds and experiment with conventional beats by slowing down or hastening the tempo of the drums or whatever is essential to providing a gritty background to the rapper's vocals. For the listeners, relatability is the outcome; as the drill artists tell their stories of struggle and hopes of a better life, the audience resonates with it.

In Nigeria, expression is a way of life and in a society filled with various difficulties such as bad governance, police brutality, and poverty, speaking out is essential. Whether a whisper or a scream, talking is therapy, and with drill, a young generation of Nigerian artistes are turning to this art form to make their voices heard.

In the wake of the #EndSARS protests and the Lekki Massacre on 21 October 2020, Lagos based drill artiste PSIV released 'Gangland' featuring South African driller Espiquet. On the track, both artistes lament the breakdown of law and order in their societies, comparing them to a wasteland ruled by violence and gore. For PSIV (real name Pius Bankong), drill is a way of conveying his realities in a place that has slowly descended into a hotbed of crime. “I do drill music because it's one of my purest outlets. It's such a pure form of expression,” the rapper tells B.Side. “The pacy flow, hard-hitting 808s, and overall energy just communicate a sense of danger; endorphins, you know. Coming from Lagos with all the daily madness, drill is the perfect vehicle to express all mixed up feelings of anger, frustration, and excitement simultaneously. Even madder when you put a spin to it like I do; sometimes conscious, other times just bare lit bops, sometimes it's both. No matter the theme of the song, it's always catchy, energetic, and unfiltered.”

But activism and societal ills are not the only things reflective of the Nigerian condition. Despite the stifling environment, there is a strong culture of innovation and a spirit of hope that transcends the limits set by circumstances. Being a medium of reflection, drill shows this aspect of society. On ‘CLC Step’, indie label Chop Life Crew set themselves apart from the rest, declaring their intentions to do music their way on a grainy drill beat. On ‘Gboju’, Remy Baggins, PsychoYP, and Mojo rap about the hustle and shame their opps for portraying fake lives on the internet. On the Jaiye-assisted ‘Brakkkaaa’, Straffitti brings hope of a better tomorrow, provided you put in the hard work, of course.

Drill music’s greatest attraction is its ability to excite and inform at the same time. While providing entertainment, drill rappers are also great social justice warriors, exposing society’s inequalities and the negative consequences of a system that encourages such unfairness and imbalance. In England, social scientists are realising its educative qualities and are using it to reach young people in disadvantaged communities on equal ground.

Music in any form or style has infinite possibilities to change, uplift, and cause happenings in society. As drill slowly settles in the Nigerian music industry, its potential to evolve into a space for new musicians and creative efforts to bloom is an exciting prospect. We can only watch with bated breath and fingers crossed to see where it takes us.

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