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Long Read: Women Have Always Run The Drill Scene 

Brighton-based writer Elsa Monteith explores the jaded history of women in the drill scene, reporting on decades of erasure, and writing in favour of a future inspired by inclusion, and led by deep listening.

In many ways, the “boys club” of UK drill is a fallacy – women have been running the scene since the early 2010’s with a huge amount of success, and a sincere lack of visibility.

If we use fame, billing, and money as a means of calculating conventional, commercial, and, let’s face it, capitalism-coded success, it becomes a pretty arbitrary exercise that leaves us with a litany of talented, wealthy, but predominantly male artists. Headie One, Digga D, and Central Cee are household names to the typical cultured millennial or GenZ-er – aside from essentially spelling out the alphabet and beginning to count to ten, these men are, by all accounts, successful drillers climbing charts and headlining shows to critical acclaim.

Without getting too personal, I think of Cench’s sound and lyrics as more kitsch TikTok marketing and algorithm appeasing than authentic drill music. There’s a commercial appeal that doesn’t quite hit the same as Ivorian Doll and Abigail Asante’s “The Situation”, or Cristale’s recent Daily Duppy on GRM Daily. And yet, as Cench said in his hit single “Doja”, we “gotta mention [his] name if [we] talk ’bout the genre”. This isn’t to say his tracks aren’t credible or his fame isn’t justified, it just begs the question; how many women in drill of that same stature can you name? And why is that a hard question to answer?

There’ll be some people who will try to swerve this question by saying something along the lines of “there just aren’t any (or many)”. I’ve heard this countless times, and can tell them, with confidence, that this simply isn’t the case. The output of women in drill, grime, and rap is both expansive and extensive, an ever-growing archive of tracks, EPs, and albums championing deft lyricism and dynamic artistry across cities and counties in and beyond the UK. There are playlists, mixes, and radio shows out there that have done the work for the naysayers that aren’t already tuned into talent beyond the default male profile of drill. The ease of exploring new music on streaming platforms is no longer an excuse for ignorance or laziness – there’s a rich catalogue of women in drill both emerging and established, and you’re a fool if you’re not listening. 

I would say, however, the answer to the question is visibility. Be it playlisting or promotion, women in drill are simply not seen or heard as much by the wider public. But why is this? The industry has always been filled with outstanding female artists with a prolific output, and yet in 2023 just 13% of UK headliners at the top 50 festivals were women, demonstrating the vital need for platforms like The F-List, an online directory of female and gender minority musicians available to play at festivals, and Keychange, an organisation challenging events to achieve gender parity across their whole lineups, rather than just securing female headliners. 

The limited mainstream representation of women in drill is bound to have an impact on the next generation of artists and listeners in and beyond the genre. The “see it to be it” pipeline is pretty bleak, with a 2020 study into UK music reporting that women make up just 5.36% of the total musicians signed to UK Grime labels. It’s a pretty shocking statistic, and one that demonstrates the clear disparity between the number of young women and gender diverse people who are interested in music in adolescence, and those who make it into the industry. As an example – female students consistently outperform male students in music GCSEs, with 55% of young women achieving A*-C grades in 2019 – and yet 82% of CEOs in the UK music industry are male. Why is that?

This commercial success both on and off the stage is easier to reach for some than others. Gender, race, class, and colourism all play a huge part in how artists are received by the industry, not to mention other protected characteristics that come into play like disability, religion, or national origin. The intersection of marginalised identities and the privilege some demographics experience is stark, with gender, generational wealth, and proximity to whiteness playing a heavy hand in the likelihood of artists reaching conventional success. 

A 2020 study observed a number of factors that might act as a barrier to women finding success in the industry, with unconscious bias, sexism, harassment, and lack of role models all playing their part in the gender imbalance. In 2018, The Incorporated Society of Musicians published a survey of discrimination in the music sector called Dignity at Work, reporting that 47% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, or discrimination in the industry. It’s no wonder that women in drill aren’t as visible in a mainstream and conventional context, a genre commercially dominated by male voices. Women are routinely discriminated against on account of their gender and other intersecting identities – but we are all subject to the same petty, sinister machine; the patriarchy.

The patriarchy persists through male-centric programming, with music industry decision-makers all too often relegating women into what I might term “girl power” billing, rather than consistently including them in regular lineups. This misdirected “pity” promotion is at best unconscious bias, and at worst outright sexism, but we can’t always individualise these decisions. There is a systemic misogyny issue deeply embedded in the scene, and it requires some hefty, industry-wide action to deconstruct and rebuild in a way that doesn’t condescend, pity, or patronise women. 

Criticism like mine is often met with promoters putting on a couple of adhoc all-female billings to compensate for what’s lacking, but what I’m really looking for is for promotion equity and an authentic shift in mindset. The bare minimum of booking is to reach a gender parity and representation both on and off stage, but the true mark of equity is treating women in drill as you’d treat any other artist – not as an exception to rule, but as a respected and established part of the industry. 

There’s a representation trope that’s become acutely apparent in local and global scenes where often white male promoters or DJs play Black music, and profit from the night. The state of capitalism in this country is fraught with profit-obsession and wealth-chasing, a generational rehashing of being fixated by our bank balance – and whilst I resist using money as any kind of metric, there’s something to be said for booking the appropriate talent and paying them (well) for their work. Music is universal, and should be enjoyed by everyone, but putting your bag to one side and passing the mic to someone more aligned with the culture does no harm. In fact, it’s pretty vital. 

Women, particularly Black women, are often at the bottom of the pile when it comes to this trend of booking –  they are overlooked, sidelined, and erased in favour of more conventionally visible names on the scene, all too often men. This is a systemic, institutionalised issue, and something we have to tackle as a community with the same shared vision – an equitable scene that pays women their dues. And quickly.    

Despite being a young genre, the heritage of drill reaches far back into the beginnings of Black music, a history that author and researcher Adèle Oliver discusses in her book “Deeping It: Colonialism, Culture & Criminalisation of UK Drill”. Oliver clearly articulates how drill is “not the first sound pioneered by Black people to be criminalised,” speaking to the historic vilification of “jazz, roots reggae, sound system cultures, jungle, acid, garage, as well as pirate radio and grime”. Oliver shares how Black music has never been traditionally considered an expressive art form, instead it is received as “a dangerous call to arms”, reflected in the wide criticism (and many cases of criminalisation) of drill that are present both on UK soil, and further afield. 

A landmark case in 2019 saw UK drill rappers Skengdo and AM become the first artists to be handed a prison sentence for performing a track. The Met claimed that performing the track was “inciting and encouraging violence against rival gang members”, despite neither rappers ever being convicted of a violent crime.

Organisations like Art Not Evidence are working to change legislation to make creative expression inadmissible in court, shaping real political and legal change with support of MPs and industry heavyweights. For me, the often fictionalised creative expression isn’t a reasonable criticism or viable take – the problem here is a sustained, visceral commitment to lyrics that spit misogyny. Even for a drill devotee, it’s too hard to ignore.

In 2021, Tion Wayne and Russ Millions made history by releasing the first ever UK drill track to top the UK singles charts with their song “Body”. It was a pivotal moment for the genre, marking a shift in how drill was, and is, commercially received by both the general public and the wider industry. Verse one and the hook is immediately talking about women, asking “big batty girl” Abiola to “bring it to the owner”. This language is wildly offensive, objectifying, and degrading, and while it might not reflect the artist’s behaviour or mindset, it hits a little different to the women making space on the scene, and has a profound, if unconscious, impact on those listening. Stick around a couple of verses and Arrdee jumps in with the line that set him on his meteoric rise to fame; “Have you seen the state of her body? If I beat it, I ain’t wearin’ a johnny”. It’s a stellar example of the language typically used in the genre – be it top charts, mainstream, or underground; the sexism reigns on. 

It feels like we need a fresh start, but wiping the slate clean isn’t as simple as it might sound. There are actionable steps that we can undertake in each of our respective roles both within and outside of the industry. From the CEO booking talent to the average Joe constructing their January playlist, we all make decisions that influence the industry, and play a critical role in who finds success, whatever that might look like to them. Take some time to reflect on your position, privilege, and power, and use it to shape a future industry that gives women in drill the space to be recognised and recompensed for what they’ve been doing for decades. 

Words: Elsa Monteith, a Brighton based writer and broadcaster working in and around the arts and on the radio waves. Subscribe to Elsa’s Discontented newsletter here.

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