Book Review: Ballad of the Bullet by Stuart

Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy by Forrest Stuart was published by Princeton University Press in 2020.

Forrest Stuart is Associate Professor of Sociology at Stanford University and the Director of the Stanford Ethnography Lab. His research examines the causes and consequences of contemporary urban poverty. His first book, Down, Out, and Under Arrest, is a five-year ethnographic study of the detrimental effects of broken windows policing on urban poor residents. His second book, Ballad of the Bullet, investigates how digital social media transform gangs, violence, and daily life in urban poor communities. His research has been featured by ViceGQMother Jones, WiredNPR, and other outlets. He tweets @ForrestDStuart

Review by Anthony Bencomo

Our perception of street gangs frequently reflects images from the 1980s and 1990s, often presented to us by outside observers like local media outlets. However, with the internet and social media removing traditional gatekeepers, individuals now have more control over the images presented. In Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy, Forrest Stuart makes a crucial contribution to the study of media and gangs by exploring the lives of hip-hop artists known as “drillers” and the “drill music” they create. Scholarship on gangs has extensively examined Chicago’s history, and Stuart’s work is critical in highlighting the most recent era of gangs. Stuart utilizes ethnography to challenge our perceptions of modern gang violence, expand our understanding of the structural transformation of gangs, and share critical insights into the way technology is impacting life in underserved communities. Stuart details how mainstream avenues for making money have disappeared for young people in struggling neighborhoods, and other avenues like drug dealing have dwindled. New circumstances like stricter sentencing laws have led to an end of the corporate gang structure seen in past studies. As such, drill music is viewed by some youth in these communities as the only viable path to achieve dignity and respect. 

The book is organized by themes, like the lack of viable economic routes in the formal and informal economy, the calculations employed by drillers to manipulate algorithms to promote their social media content, and the danger that accompanies more attention as upstart drillers will insult more prominent drillers. Throughout the book, Stuart places his research into conversation with the work of other sociologists, including Mary Pattillo and Elijah Anderson. This conversation is most evident when Stuart discusses the codes of conduct that drillers attempt to live by or to analyze the gaze of outsiders upon the music created by the drillers.

Readers are consistently reminded that some of what motivates these young drillers to post their social media content is similar to what drives people from the middle class to produce social media content. However, the circumstances and stakes are considerably different for these young people. Although the youth may seem reckless on social media, in reality, there is significant calculation behind the content. Drillers strive to ensure their videos and social media content receive as much attention as possible in what is labeled the “attention economy.” More attention brings financial opportunities and “clout,” but it also brings conflict with rival drillers, which can potentially move beyond the social media realm into the physical world. Yet, the author consistently challenges the perception that social media inevitably leads to more violence and instead reminds the reader of the circumstances that participants face.

Stuart utilizes ethnography to great effect. The author follows the drillers not only in their neighborhoods but also in churches and affluent areas, opportunities for travel that arise primarily due to the music the drillers created. Not only is the impact of society on the drillers shown, but the driller’s impact on their communities is also shared. This reflection is demonstrated by many community members who believe that local violence is at an all-time high. Conversely, statistics show that violence has lessened in recent times. The driller’s videos and the accompanying media coverage are impacting many community members’ views of the level of violence. Furthermore, for youth in the community who do not identify as drillers, knowledge of drill music can be a source of social capital amongst their peer group. Shrewdly, some youth in these communities use social media content to navigate their neighborhoods safely. This ability to maneuver safely comes from following the social media behavior of drillers as drillers promote their rivalries and often publicly log their movements, meaning that many youths in these areas can use this data to shape their day to best avoid conflict.

Ethnographers often grapple with the degree to which they should share survival strategies used by participants in their writing. Stuart faces a distinct version of this common conundrum: as drillers profit from displaying a one-sided character, how much should Stuart reveal about the hidden complexities of young drillers, and could revealing this information harm the ability of participants to capitalize on their social media content? A large portion of the driller’s audience is composed of outsiders who have never been to these communities but enjoy seeing the violence on screen. The more violent they appear, the more attention they are likely to receive. Revealing that drill culture is not as violent as portrayed in the music videos could hurt the money-making ability of the drillers. Yet, in his work, Stuart details the pride, fear, and the love they hold for family members and friends, revealing a more well-rounded view of the participants than the images they present on social media. This conundrum highlighted by Stuart serves as a useful thought experiment for researchers preparing to enter fieldwork.

Furthermore, the section titled “Author’s Notes” is essential reading for both experienced and novice researchers, as Stuart expands on ethical considerations and difficult decisions made in the process of researching and writing this book. Stuart makes a crucial contribution to what constitutes an ethnographer while also contributing to the current debate about “unmasking participants”. Though “Author’s Notes” provides a powerful reflection, this text would benefit from more contemplation presented within earlier parts of the book when the author describes specific quandaries they encountered.

Balled of the Bullet is a vital text and Stuart’s work has clear implications for people in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and media studies. Community workers would also benefit from reading this book as it analyzes the media consumed by many in underserved communities without losing a critique of the societal circumstances that help produce the music. Overall, this book challenges our understanding of how youth in struggling neighborhoods utilize technology as a means of survival, turning what the outside world holds against them, into a chance at social mobility.

Anthony Bencomo is a PhD Student in the UC Santa Cruz Politics Department. His research examines the impact of street gangs on the local community.

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