The Passive Extremism of Social Media in the Bronx Drill Scene

By Matthew K. Carter

On July 9, 2022, fourteen-year-old Ethan Reyes, better known as drill rapper Notti Osama, was stabbed to death on a New York City subway platform during a confrontation with a fifteen-year-old rival gang member. A couple months later, drill rappers Kyle Richh, Tata, and Jenn Carter, all members of the rap collective “41,” which Notti Osama had disparaged in a recent song, released  the track “Notti Bop.” It became the #1 streamed music video on YouTube, and the eponymous dance featured in the video was being performed on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube by kids, parents, police officers, coaches, and teachers. With lyrics like “Notti boppin’, I’m poking my hips / [Notti Osama’s] dead, ’cause he was tryna diss / Mention the gang, now he dead in the ditch,” and a corresponding dance that entails audacious poking motions at one’s body to mimic being stabbed, it is ostensibly two-and a half minutes of mocking the violent death of a teenager.

Notti Osama’s death, the song “Notti Bop,” and the subsequent responses to them both—in drill tracks and elsewhere on social media—comprise a viral moment rooted in that feature which undergirds the aesthetics of drill music throughout NYC, and most viscerally in the Bronx: violence. Who or what is to blame for the violence associated with Bronx drill is a contested issue, with most opinions falling into one of two camps: those who interpret drill music and its creators as the primary locus of violence on the one hand, and those who defend drill as an artistic form of raw street reporting, charging injurious socio-economic forces with catalyzing violence on the other. Both views, however, overlook social media’s power to shape the social and expressive worlds of teens immersed in Bronx drill.

I argue that social media platforms are trafficking in a pernicious form of extremism, and that the Bronx drill scene is an illustrative case study of its mechanics. While “extremism” is a fluid term, I interpret a two-prong approach that conforms broadly to conventional paradigms of the concept: social media companies disrupt conventional modes of interpersonal communication in a way that encourages interpersonal confrontation; and they furnish a desire for conflict escalation by associating it with virality, and virality with cultural and financial success.

Branding, Violence, and Bronx Drill

This approach, at least in the case of Bronx drill, manifests an ecosphere in which success obtains through a potent admixture of violence-based branding online and the need for audiences to perceive that violence as tied to deeds in the “real” world to vouchsafe that brand authenticity. Brands need to stand out to go viral, especially amidst the sea of simulacra that constitutes the social media landscape. Moreover, since virality is harnessed to emotion,and violence is often highly emotional, and young Bronx drill rappers are often exposed to a social world in which violence is frequent and/or aggrandized, they craft their brands of violence that are both personalized to stand out and generically consistent with the drill sound.

Branding as an enterprise has its roots in the machine age and reached its maximalized form during the frenzied neo-liberal corporate consolidations of the 1990s. As Naomi Klein demonstrates in her 1999 book No Logo,the impetus for branding exposes a simple market logic: “within a context of manufactured sameness, image-based difference had to be manufactured along with the product.” In other words, as the number of interchangeable products increases, brands must create distinction.

Marketing strategies for building and sustaining brands have changed dramatically in the online attention economy, in which consumers pay with their time more than with their purse. Rather than promoting a consumer product with a logo stamped onto it (e.g., Tommy Hilfiger, Coke, Mitsubishi), brands now focus on generating “engagement” in the form of clicks, views, comments, and shares. (The exact profit structures for content creators on social media platforms vary, but that remuneration is always contingent on how much engagement one generates.) Brands heavily emphasize “high arousal emotions,” which, research has shown, “is the primary driver of video sharing.” Drill rappers in the Bronx are attuned to this strategy, employing vitriolic content, which triggers high-arousal emotional responses, thus generating more shares, discussion, and attention.

One might assume that the sonic atmosphere of Bronx drill is an ancillary feature, negligible within the scope of the scene and social media’s extremism. Close examination, however, reveals how the Kleinian principle of manufactured sameness giving rise to the need for brand distinction on the one hand, and a supercharged emotional edge to circulate in virality-driven attention economy on the other, cohere in the Bronx drill track.

The beat, timbre, rapping style, lyrical themes, and video imagery, are more or less interchangeable among most Bronx drill tracks of the time, constructing a kind of scaffolded, product sameness. They typically employ monosyllabic end rhymes that emphasize the given rapper’s own inclination toward gun violence in contrast to their rivals’ presumed cowardice or unpreparedness, and invoke deceased rivals as evidence of such shortcomings. The videos, too, employ similar imagery: large groups of kids and young men huddled close to the camera, getting sturdy (which is a NY drill style of dance), and flashing gang signs, finger guns, and prop guns, all against the backdrop of some combination of their building, block, and environing neighbourhood.

To distinguish oneself and garner attention amidst that product sameness, drill rappers carve out their brand through an aesthetics of violence that entails an arresting mix of personalized threats, braggadocio, mockery, denigration, and constant name-dropping of allies and enemies, dead and alive. Bronx drill rappers adeptly deploy these dimensions of their brand in tandem to maximize their chances at virality.  

In Ballad of the Bullet, an ethnographic study of Chicago drill (distinct from but related to Bronx drill in its reliance on a violent aesthetic and social media), sociologist Forrest Stuart observes that drillers, having “realized the age-old adage that ‘violence sells,’” will “saturate their online content with the evidence necessary to authenticate the violent criminality that they proclaim in their music.” In this way, violent escalations in the real world that correspond to representations of violence online seem like a natural and predictable consequence. Stuart notes: “If there is a dominant message running through virtually every drill song, video, and related content, it’s an appeal to superior authenticity: ‘I really do these violent deeds. I really use these guns. I really sell these drugs. My rivals, however, do none of this.’”

There is an important distinction between drill songs and videos and the “related content.” Real violent deeds, after all, are not actually happening in songs and videos. Moreover, recorded songs and videos always keep consumers at a temporal and physical distance, while that “related content” on social media feels as if they are collapsing those distances. By bringing viewers into the moment, coequal with the artist, these aspects of the scene brim with liveness, spontaneity, emotion, and confrontation—all of which reinforce brand authenticity and lead to online engagement. For those teens present on the ground, however, there is no physical distance from the actual violence that makes virtual intimations of it so alluring and intensifies its virality.

Kay Flock vs. Rah Gz

The feud between Kay Flock and Rah Gz—drill rappers and alleged members of rival gangs, D.O.A. and YGz, respectively—is an instructive episode here, as it demonstrates the convergence and mutual reinforcement of brand authenticity, an aesthetics of violence, and the extremism of social media. It started with an argument on Instagram Live in June 2021, with interlocutors also taking to YouTube, and TikTok. Within six weeks, three teenagers were murdered along with numerous other instances of violence connected to the original Instagram Live.

The venue for and participation in Bronx drill were no longer delimited to the local streets or recording studios of the Bronx. This glut of antagonizing content found increasing levels of engagement, which brought wider attention and scrutiny to those accusations and threats, which meant, for many, it was time to corroborate their claims.  Subsequent posts and songs either paying tribute to or denigrating the deceased teenagers flooded Bronx drill social media, manifesting more violence and online responses to those posts and songs, prompting more violence and online responses, and on it goes… (See here for a more exhaustive overview).

In researching this sobering affair, I keep asking the same question: would there have been less violence and fewer deaths among teenagers if the argument took place offline, or without the engine of violence-based virality fueling it? Trafficking in and/or drawing conclusions from counterfactuals is a notorious fool’s errand. In this case, however, I keep taking the bait and concluding that there in fact would have been less violence and fewer deaths, in part because we have substantial historical evidence from which to draw.

Crafting the Real in the Image of the Virtual

Violence as an aesthetic is not unique to drill music. Myriad music genres feature artistic representations of violence, including country music, thrash metal, opera, and progenitive hip hop subgenres like gangsta rap and horrorcore. In the drill scene, however, expressions of violence are more compelling when they correlate with real world violence, and it is only through social media that those correlations are arbitrated and promoted. Social media has triggered this inversion from the poetic to the literal; the structures of attention and virality rewards brands built on real violence. Indeed, asserting authenticity through violence in a drill track is but one—albeit an essential—aspect of a wider branding process; the paratextual online worlds of Bronx drill work together to sculpt brand authenticity. And when one’s brand is rooted in violence, protecting and perpetuating it can be dangerous.

In his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard argued that media’s representation of war creates a hyperreality of sorts by first blurring the distinction between reality and simulation, and ultimately replacing reality with a simulation of it. Social media corporations use the same model, but to such extreme ends that they have ostensibly inverted its trajectory: having embedded themselves in both the everyday and aspirational lives of young people and having reshaped those young people’s understanding of meaning and success, social media lure young people in the Bronx to craft their actual reality in the image of their online hyperreality.

These procedures and consequences conform to the two-prong framework of this post, in which I assert social media companies are extremist in their bending modes of communication toward violent confrontation, and the beguiling clout they bestow on virality. The medium’s mechanics have morphed narrow local disagreements into ever-expanding public threats of violence among people whose online brands rely on the perception of those threats being credible. And when a brand whose authenticity is contingent on the perception that violent promises made online will be kept in the streets converges with an audience drawn to that violence, the stakes are professionally and literally existential. Well, they are for the young people on the ground—not for the social media companies that facilitate, profit from, and deny culpability for that violence.

Matthew K. Carter, PhD, is a professor and researcher in the Music Department at The City College of New York, CUNY. His teaching and research focus primarily on the aesthetics, dissemination, and reception of popular music in the United States.

Image Credit: PEXELS