(NEW YORK) — The deaths of two young aspiring rappers last week have reinvigorated the debate about drill music, a popular subgenre of rap, and its connection to violence.
Jayquan McKenley, an 18-year-old aspiring rapper from the Bronx known as CHII WVTTZ, was shot and killed Sunday morning while leaving a recording studio in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
McKenley was shot in the chest, police said, and was transferred to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
His death came days after 22-year-old Tahjay Dobson, who is known as rapper Tdott Woo, was shot and killed Tuesday in front of his home in the neighborhood of Canarsie hours after signing a record deal.
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An NYPD spokesman told ABC News on Thursday that no arrests have been made in either case and the investigations are ongoing. Major crime in New York City is up 38.5% from January 2021 to January 2022, according to NYPD statistics.
What is drill music?
McKenley and Dobson were both part of the Brooklyn drill music scene – a hip-hop subgenre that started in Chicago and was popularized by Chicago rappers like Chief Keef, Lil Durk,·Fredo Santana, King Louie, G Herbo, Lil Bibby and Lil Reese.
Jabari Evans, a professor of race and media who studies subgenres of urban youth, at the University of South Carolina, told ABC News that the “well-defined sound” of drill music is what makes it unique, and the genre is sonically known for “chanty choruses, dark scents and kind of warring 808 [drum beats].”
But the violence described in the lyrics and the genre’s origins in Chicago gang culture are what make it controversial.
Erik Nielson, co-author of the 2019 book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” told ABC News that drill music’s “primary connection to violence is artistic and creative” and for drill artists, the music is “a way out of the the violent neighborhoods that they chronicle.”
According to Evans, drill rap emerged in the Southside of Chicago in the early 2010s as Chicago’s version of “gangster music” and was centered around “well-defined gang politics.”
“The meaning on the streets of Chicago was, if you were doing a ‘drill,’ that meant you were doing a crime,” he said.
But drill music “evolved” over the years, as it blew up around the world, Evans added, becoming popular in cities from NYC, to Los Angeles and countries like the United Kingdom and Uganda.
And despite the diversity of the lyrics and the artists, Evans said the genre still carries the same violent connotation in the media and for law enforcement.
‘His music was anything but hopeful’
Over the years, drill artists have been monitored and targeted by law enforcement, with some being banned from performing in their own hometowns. But artists have long argued that their music is a form of self-expression that chronicles the struggles of life on the streets.
Such was the case of McKenley, whose story was told by New York City Mayor Eric Adams during a press conference on Thursday as he discussed problems in the city’s social services, criminal justice and school systems that leave young people vulnerable.
“There are thousands of Jayquans in our city right now,” Adams said. “Thousands of children experiencing homelessness and poverty, who need educational support, who are at high risk … we cannot let thousands of children lose their lives to violence and neglect.”
Adams said that once he learned about McKenley’s life, “a clear profile emerged of someone who needed help” because he struggled in school and at home. He was also arrested multiple times between 2018-2021, most recently for attempted murder.
Like other drill music artists, McKenley and Dobson built a following and released their music on social media.
McKenley’s Instagram account has more than 27,000 followers and Dobson has more than 94,000 followers.
“Like many young men, Jayquan was an aspiring rapper. ‘Aspiring’ is a word that means hope, but his music was anything but hopeful,” Adams said.
Asked if McKenley and Dobson’s killings could be related to gang violence, the police did not comment.
‘We can’t stereotype an entire group’
The Brooklyn drill music scene was brought into the mainstream by artists like Fivio Foreign and the late rapper Pop Smoke, who was one of the biggest stars to popularize Brooklyn drill before he was shot and killed on Feb. 19, 2020.
Hot 97’s DJ Drewski, whose legal name is Andrew Loffa, was an early supporter of Pop Smoke and the Brooklyn drill music scene. He said on Tuesday in a message posted to his Instagram Stories that while he will continue to play drill music, he will no longer play “diss/gang” music that is aimed at rival rappers.
“If ya dissing each other in the songs, don’t even send it to me!” he wrote. “We r losing too many young men and women to the streets!”
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez told Fox5NY earlier this week that there have been “a number of shootings in Brooklyn recently that are directly related to drill.”
“These drill rap videos are causing young people to lose their lives. It’s not that the music is the cause of the violence, but it’s fueling the desire to retaliate,” he said.
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Fivio Foreign, who was friends with TDott Woo, defended the genre in an interview with TMZ Tuesday, saying, “It’s not the music that’s killing people, it’s the music that’s helping n—– from the hood get out the hood.”
But Perry Williams, McKenley’s father, criticized the impact of drill music scene in an interview with Fox5NY, saying his son faced intense competition as an aspiring rapper.
“Our hip-hop is no long hip-hop anymore, and now, if you’re not doing drill, you’re not going to get no play,” Williams said.
Evans said that while “drill has produced real violence,” artists have a right to self-expression and each artist has unique motivations.
“We can’t stereotype an entire group based on the genre of music that they’ve chosen to participate in,” he said.
There’s a longstanding tradition of artists feuding through their music in hip-hop and it’s possible that it “spills over into the streets or in real life,” Nielson said.
But he added that drill music has become “a convenient boogeyman” for law enforcement – “a lazy, misinformed narrative” that ignores the “systemic causes of violence in these neighborhoods.”
Evans echoed Nielson, saying that “it’s easy to make drill a scapegoat,” but “in reality, the situations, the spaces, places, and problems that existed in certain communities existed far before drill.”
In sharing McKenley’s story, Adams addressed those systemic problems, including homelessness and poverty that left the teenager vulnerable.
“To Jayquan’s mother and father, I want you to say I’m sorry,” a tearful Adams said.
He added, “I’m sorry that your son was passed over for so long and taken from you too soon. I’m sorry we betrayed him, and so many others like him.”
ABC News’ Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.
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