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Drill, Gangs, and Social Media

About: Forrest Stuart, Ballad of the Bullet : Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy, Princeton University Press


Al Capone’s city is regaining a reputation for crime—and is setting it to music. This latter is known as “drill,” a new form of rap that claims to document street life and violent criminality.

“Chiraq”—a contraction of “Chicago” and “Iraq”—is one of Chicago’s grimmest nicknames. Between 2003 and 2011, more people were murdered in Chicago than American soldiers were killed in Iraq. Chicago has once again become a symbol of gang violence. While Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq (2015) introduced this nickname to a national audience, this reputation is primarily the result of a new form of rap music that emerged in the early 2010s: drill.

Through an ethnographic study conducted between 2014 and 2016 of the Corner Boys, a group of young drillers from Taylor Park, an anonymized neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, sociologist Forrest Stuart seeks to explain this “emerging genre of hyperviolent, hyperlocal, DIY-style gangsta rap that claims to document street life and violent criminality” (p. 10), the term “drill” being local slang for a shootout. An associate professor of sociology at Stanford and director of the Stanford Ethnography Lab, Stuart is a specialist in contemporary forms of poverty. His first book, Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row (2016), which received several prestigious awards, also drew on long-term ethnographic fieldwork to understand interactions between police and the homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood. His second book considers drill as an entry point into the daily realities of the residents of poor neighborhoods in urban centers, as, according to Stuart, it is impossible to grasp these realities “without considering the role and influence of digital cultural production” (p. 7).

The book’s main thesis is that the use of social media and the quest for “online infamy,” far from being evidence of a “barbarization” of the racialized elements of the working class that are constantly suspected of being dangerous, are both one of the few available forms of upward social mobility and a modality of self-affirmation. This cultural form, which rapidly proliferated nationally and internationally, is highly paradoxical, as it plays on the contradictory expectations of dominant norms, seamlessly blending social stigma and a fascination with violence, both real and imagined.

Immersion in the World of Drill

The thematic organization of the book’s seven chapters makes it possible to follow each stage of drill’s cultural production, from the socioeconomic context in which it emerged to the complex and divergent effects of its reception on local life. The book’s conceptual architecture rests on four primary pillars. The first is the concept of “micro-celebrity,” which Stuart borrows from studies in media sociology. Micro-celebrity refers not to what one is, but to what one does—“a set of practices and mind-sets” (p. 225). As a practice, managing one’s micro-celebrity thus requires time, energy, and economic, social, and cultural resources of various kinds. But as Stuart emphasizes throughout the book, most studies of micro-celebrity examine relatively privileged social groups, thus obscuring the full implications of the different ways the means of digital production can be appropriated. How is micro-celebrity constructed and how does it manifest itself for those who lack resources?

Like other producers occupying dominated positions in the field of cultural production, the practical solution found by drillers consists in overinvesting in the stereotypes associated with their position—in other words, overplaying the role of “super-predators” to satisfy the public’s voyeuristic desires. Concretely, this means displaying a passion for weapons, abundant drug consumption, an attraction to physical violence, and showing off gang affiliations. This mise en scène of the self seeks to affirm one’s authentic membership in “street culture” (Bourgois 2002) and the violence it implies. In this instance, the ethnographic method proves particularly heuristic, as it demonstrates that the claim to authenticity is socially constructed. Stuart thus reminds us of a distinction that is both trivial and crucial: the fact that one acts out violent words and behavior in online videos does not mean that one behaves this way offline. “As I came to learn in my time with the Corner Boys, a good number of those perceived as the most authentically violent live lives that look nothing of the sort” (p. 7).

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Image tirée du clip “Taliban” de RondoNumbaNine

The book’s second structuring concept is that of the “online attention economy,” which Stuart defines as “a competitive field where cultural producers vie for the eyes and ears of audiences” (p. 4). Indeed, it is undoubtedly in the realm of cultural production that social media has most democratized access to the means of production, creating new stakes in practical as well as symbolic struggles: in a highly competitive space, how can one distinguish oneself from others? How can one achieve fame and recognition? Public attention seems all the more coveted when it is quantifiable (i.e., number of views, “likes,” “followers,” and friends), but scarce.

The emergence of drill belongs to a broader sociohistorical context, relating to deep transformations in the structure of gangs and the drug trade. Whereas the arrival of crack in the 1980s led urban gangs to turn themselves into distribution networks, thus offsetting, for many young people in the ghetto, the lack of jobs in the formal economy, in the 1990s, the appearance of new drugs rivalling crack upended the internal organization of gangs, which lost their ability to preserve their profit margins and career opportunities. At the same time, police repression at the local and federal levels struck many gang leaders, destroying internal hierarchies and perpetuating older generations’ wariness of the young, who were suspected of being informers. In a space so limited in its possibilities, the online attention economy revived the myth of the self-made man, which holds that social success is accessible to anyone with sufficient will and individual perseverance. Thus drill is “what happens when the digital economy and urban poverty collide” (p. 3). Several decades after William Julius Wilson’s foundational work on the central role played by deindustrialization in growing socioracial inequality, Stuart maintains that “economic currents” have returned to the South Side in the form of communication technologies and digital platforms. But if these studies show that black teenagers are the primary producers of daily digital content (there are twice as many as whites of the same age), few of them benefit from this production, which is generally not synonymous with making money or changing relationships of domination.

This second conceptual pillar is the basis for Stuart’s claim that one must think in terms of “digital disadvantages” rather than “digital divides.” Borrowing a concept that is important to Wilson, he declares that the issue of digital tools must be conceived not only in quantitative terms—that is, in terms of access—but also in qualitative terms; in other words, as a question of differentiated uses. Due to the users’ objectively unequal positions in the social hierarchy, these tools do not have the same effects on their daily lives.

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Le rappeur King Louie partage sur Instagram son noël à l’hôpital après s’être fait tirer dessus.

For drillers, digital production is not simply a hobby. It represents, rather, a rare path towards social mobility and the affirmation of self-dignity. But because the Corner Boys find themselves in a dominated position, the costs of micro-celebrity are qualitatively different from those described in the few studies of these practices, which are concerned primarily with their psychological costs. Stuart distinguishes between two major cost categories faced by the drillers. First, there are costs associated with the “street culture” and the “street code” (Anderson 1999), based on struggles—simultaneously physical and symbolic—for respect, reputation, and authenticity. Over the study’s course, several of the Corner Boys’ friends were killed by rivals, the notorious “opps” (for “opposition”) that haunt this musical genre. Next, drillers are among the most privileged “clients” of the judicial-carceral system.

Currently, the police and prosecutors make massive use of digital content as evidence to win convictions and to build “gang databases,” the racial biases of which have been widely criticized. While Stuart’s study demonstrates the importance of the distinction between words (and videos) and actions in understanding drill’s practical and symbolic dimensions, the police, prosecutors, and judges take these videos at face value, thus perpetuating the phenomenon of mass incarceration that afflicts Blacks and racialized minorities (Alexander 2010). The mise en scène of violence, while contributing to the micro-celebrity that drillers desire, also exposes one to the risk of retaliation from rivals as well as from judicial institutions.

King Louie - “Chiraq Drillinois” (2011)

Finally, Stuart shows that drill is not autonomously produced in urban ghettos. To make the videos that sustain their micro-celebrity, the Corner Boys work with music producers, sound engineers, and video makers living in other Chicago neighborhoods, cities, and even countries. Once pictures and videos have been posted online, they depend on the external assistance of bloggers, journalists, YouTube channels, and fans who share and comment on them, thus contributing to the recognition of their authenticity while also shaping collective representations of urban poverty. Borrowing a concept from sociologist Howard Becker, Stuart concludes that drill constitutes a “world,” a relational fabric that extends beyond the confines of the South Side, a marketplace of middlemen removed from the drillers due to their social characteristics (age, social status, educational attainment). One of the book’s most incongruous moments is a detailed account of a trip that Junior, one of the Corner Boys, makes to Los Angeles, accompanied by Stuart, on which they meet one of Junior’s fans at his enormous villa in Beverly Hills. Perfectly imitating the clothing style and the linguistic codes of his idols, flanked by an improbable white Pomeranian that he speaks to in a mushy voice, the would-be driller seeks, while living in his rich bubble, to establish “street cred” alongside Junior, while lavishing him with cash and gifts.

Drill’s World: A Boys’ Club Immune to Social Contestation?

Poignant, written with great clarity in a lively style, Stuart’s book belongs to a tradition of ethnographic studies conducted in Chicago on urban poverty since the 1930s. The theoretical reference points are primarily the classic works of Wilson, Elijah Anderson and Mary Pattillo, and, more implicitly, the interactionist framework developed by Erving Goffman and Howard Becker. Stuart’s perspective is thus resolutely comprehensive and empathic: the researcher’s goal is not to award moral points to the individuals they study, but to understand the reasons why these young men celebrate crime and violence through their cultural production. This ethical position manifests itself not only in a powerful emotional investment in ethnography. It is also apparent in a highly narrative style, in which entire paragraphs are devoted to meticulous descriptions of conversations and observed scenes. Most chapters open with captivating vignettes, full of details that bring the drillers to life.

But this preference for narration sometimes interferes with the need for analysis. In the first place, the extensive techniques used to develop the narrative, including the use of novel-like suspense, tends to replace more penetrating analysis of the informants’ social characteristics, trajectories, and practices. By placing himself in the position of a neutral first-person narrator, Stuart does little to objectify the construction of his material, even though this is a fundamental principle of ethnographic work (Laurens, 2018). It is not until the very end of the book that Stuart, in an “author’s note” of around ten pages, makes his methodological choices explicit (his entry into the field, his relationship to the informants, anonymization) and defends his theoretical positions. It is also curious to note that his most detailed portraits are those of middle and upper-class individuals who live outside of Taylor Park but with whom the Corner Boys interact—thus reproducing the logic of social and symbolic hierarch—creation. Many people having more immediate relations of interdependence with the drillers, but who are also in dominated positions, get little description. This is particularly true of women.

Shady - “Go In” (2011)

Stuart does appear to consider gender relations in his analysis, while conceding at the book’s outset that he will concentrate “primarily on the lives and perspectives of young men” and that, during the study, he “didn’t meet a single woman engaged in this form of digital production” (p. 15). Yet not only could Stuart have made it clear that there are in fact well-known and recognized female drillers, but he could have transformed women’s absence into a focus of his research. The fact that the world of drill seems to constitute a genuine boys’ club could have become a central axis of his study. True, Stuart does, in his methodological note, explain that the Corner Boys often prevented him from doing interviews with the women they frequented—notably the middle and upper-class women with whom they had sexual relations due to their micro-celebrity. Such refusals could have been used as objects of analysis (Darmon 2005), offering indirect insight into the role of masculine competition for the appropriation of female bodies in the construction of “authenticity” and micro-celebrity, rather than relegating these considerations to an “author’s note.” Most importantly, the analysis would have benefited from greater consideration of the gendered interweaving of the work of social reproduction that makes the driller’s cultural production possible, in addition to a more critical examination of these teenagers’ relationship to heteronormative sexuality and the institution of the family, as Philippe Bourgois does in In Search of Respect. While the analysis refers frequently to the “hyper-masculinity of street culture” and the way it bears down on emotional expression, this theme is rarely considered from the standpoint of the forms assumed by hegemonic masculinity and its relationship with subaltern masculinities.

Finally, the absence of Black Lives Matter is unsettling, given that this movement built a political cause around systemic police violence against African Americans which resonates deeply with the Chicago drillers’ daily reality (Taylor 2017) and which has been one of rap’s central themes since gangsta rap’s development in the early 1990s. This absence is all the more surprising given that the study’s timeframe coincides with a period in which Black Lives Matter was intensely active in Chicago. The circulation in 2015 of a video showing the murder of a young African-American named Laquan McDonald, who died in October 2014 after a white police officer shot sixteen bullets into his back, triggered several weeks of protests, looting, boycotts, and blockading, in which African American youths played a key role. The murder’s horrific character was exacerbated by political efforts to quash the incident. The scandal and the revolt that it triggered led to the dismissal of the city’s police superintendent, a federal investigation into the Chicago Police Department, and the electoral defeat several months later of the incumbent state’s attorney. The event had significant social and political repercussions, as well as cultural ones, as seen in the song “16 Shots” by the rapper Vic Mensa. Mensa’s national celebrity is in a different league than the drillers’ micro-celebrity, but Stuart’s argument would certainly have benefited from situating drill in the broader field of rap production—as his references to Pierre Bourdieu’s work would seem to imply. Yet when reading Ballad of the Bullet, one is left with the impression that the politicization of this reality never occurred during the entire two-year study. Given how George Floyd’s murder in late May 2020 revitalized the protest movement against police violence, this silence will no doubt surprise many readers.

by Clément Petitjean, 28 June

Further reading

Further reading:
• Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York, The New Press, 2010.
• Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street. Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City, New York, W. W. Norton, 1999.
• Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1995].
• Muriel Darmon, “Le psychiatre, la sociologue et la boulangère: analyse d’un refus de terrain,” Genèses, vol. 58, n° 1, 2005, p. 98-112.
• Sylvain Laurens, Lobbyists and Bureaucrats in Brussels: Capitalism’s Brokers, London and New York, Routledge, 2018.
• Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2016.

To quote this article :

Clément Petitjean, « Drill, Gangs, and Social Media », Books and Ideas , 28 June 2021. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/Drill-Gangs-and-Social-Media.html

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