Music video violence: Should grime clean up its act?

Online sites broadcast many videos that TV would ban. Police are fearful of the consequences, as Amol Rajan reports
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The Independent Online

Just over a minute into "Love for My Slum", a free video posted on the website of the digital television station Channel U, Dappy, the lead rapper from the MOBO-winning group N-Dubz, finds himself standing next to a rich kid in front of a block of flats that look Edwardian and expensive. The contrast with the rest of the video, most of which is filmed on a grey council estate, is stark.

Dappy fixes his stare alternately on the camera and the "rich boy" (so labelled earlier in the track). His lyrics combine jealousy with anger: "You got too much to lose/ You're in a great position... You wouldn't last a minute where I'm from/ You'd go missing/ So appreciate what you got/ 'cos I'm still waiting." And then he grabs the rich kid by his coat, pulls him toward him, and punches him in the face. The silent boy falls instantly to the pavement. The whole scene lasts less than 10 seconds.

Do scenes like these suggest that music videos are encouraging their viewers to indulge in criminality? Senior members of the Metropolitan Police think so. They have laid the blame for a surge in violence in recent years outside club nights – particularly East London events associated with grime, the British rap genre – on videos showcasing violence and thuggery. In November of last year, London grime artist Crazy Titch, aka Carl Dobson, was jailed for life after murdering a rival music producer following a row over lyrics.

Police are concerned that the internet is not subject to the same stringent broadcasting regulations as other forms of media. Their anger has forced commercial operators such as Channel U to defend themselves from the charge that they are exploiting lax regulation on the internet to show videos that are a vehicle for violence.

Superintendent Leroy Logan of Hackney Police, a former chairman of the Black Police Association, is clear on the role videos play. "The essence of grime is simply a reflection of these kids's experiences," he said. "But there are those out there who are keen on hijacking the scene, and using these videos to spread negativity, anger, and aggression. And whether the messages are coded or explicit, they often play themselves out on the street."

The surge in popularity of videos from the underground music scene stems from their relatively low cost. "You can see their appeal for young, talented artists who record companies are totally disinterested in," says Orson Nava, a music video director who has worked with the grime MCs Lightning, Tension, and Harvey from So Solid Crew. "For artists with little or no money, these videos give them a chance to reach a wider audience, and gain credibility within it. Obviously as a director I'm keen to encourage artists to promote positive messages. But some will choose not to."

Why? "Music videos are like tools that young artists use to earn respect from their peers, to 'represent'," says JME, a grime MC. "When you grow up in a council flat, sometimes living on top of members of your crew, the feeling of community is intense. MCs want to represent how it is on their streets. But many of the younger ones are closed-minded: they think about the image more than the music. But as they grow older they realise the music matters more than their image." JME is scathing about music videos that become vehicles for vanity. "A lot of young artists think that by looking tough in a homemade video they're worth something. In time they'll realise getting respected for your talent is what counts."

Internet websites such as YouTube, where clips have recently appeared endorsing gun and gang culture in the Liverpool neighbourhood where 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead, are only regulated through viewer's complaints. A tab below each video asks the viewer whether they thought there was any inappropriate material in the video they have just seen. Complaints are then picked up by management at the company, and it is at their discretion whether to remove a video from the site.

The regulation of websites that are offshoots of other media, however, is far less clear. For example, when appearing on Sky, Channel U is subject to the Broadcasting Code, a product of the 2003 Communications Act. After receiving several complaints in March 2004, Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, found the channel to be in breach of the Code for, among other things, promoting premium rate adult phone lines. It fined Channel U £18,000.

But when Channel U gives airplay to material on its website, it is not subject to the same guidelines. Ofcom's broadcasting remit does not extend to regulating the internet. "If it looks and feels like TV, then we have a role to play," says Simon Bates, a spokesman for Ofcom. "But with videos on the internet, there isn't the same expectation of reasonable protection, and we have no powers to control output." This means that in the case of Channel U, material that could only be broadcast on TV illegally can be broadcast on the internet without fear of the same laws. The same is true of YouTube, and indeed of any other site.

What, then, is Channel U doing to allay police concerns about grime videos? "The vast majority of videos that I get sent don't make it onto either Sky or the web," says Darren Platt, the founder and CEO of Channel U. "I get maybe 25 a week, of which six or seven make it in. We already censor over and above the guidelines. If kids want to see violent videos, there are plenty of other places on the internet where they can do that." The N-Dubz video, he says, is heavily censored. "My channel is giving kids who are neglected by mainstream record companies the chance to succeed, to be famous. Without these videos, kids would be forced into silence. I just want to give them a voice."

As Bates says, "the internet does not respect national borders". If it seems unsatisfactory that material that cannot be broadcast on television at any time can be broadcast on the internet 24 hours a day, and that the regulation of websites like Channel U's is left to the discretion of the owners, then that may be the price of innovation.

"If we did have stricter laws governing the internet, it's unlikely fantastic sites such as YouTube or Google Video would exist at all," says Bates.