I love grime. I am not afraid to admit that. However, this is not to say that a privileged white, middle-class male such as myself should pull on an Adidas originals tracksuit, a pair of Nike Air Max trainers, and take to the nearest high rise car park to ‘spit some bars’. In the past, I have been questioned about my seemingly uncharacteristic affection for grime. My mother initially found it quite startling that I would come home and relax with a cigarette accompanied by the famous gruff tones of ‘Giggs’ or the frenetic delivery of Ghetts, pounding through my speakers. I have friends of African origin who scrutinise intently as to why I opt to associate myself with such a radical, flagrant and provocative genre of a predominantly black facet of British subculture.
Certainly, I know what they are getting at. Hearing student unions populated by the most privileged in our society bouncing to the beats of erst while grime anthems such as Skepta’s ‘That’s not me’ or Stormzy’s ‘Shut up’ presents the genre with a bit of a conundrum. Of course, the recent resurgence of grime is most welcome to many of those that once pioneered a marginalised and misunderstood poetry art form. However, if those university students or the young kids developing a taste for grime remain unaware of its origins and foundations, grime loses its primary purpose. To circulate a political message.
Without appreciating the origins of this genre, the privileged white majority enjoying its undeniably alluring basslines and technically excellent lyricists, risk committing a form of cultural appropriation. As grime becomes more and more popular and, as is usually the case, the genre becomes more and more depoliticised, it is a real risk that artists themselves will desert the principles that they inherited in Britain’s unforgiving council estates or in the cold and uncomfortable cells of Britain’s institutionally racist prison system.
The art of urban poetry is fundamentally about expressing social grievances when there is no other conduit for expression. Therefore, rapping is intrinsic only to black communities and to black culture that has been structurally undermined and prevented from flourishing ever since the first blacks arrived from the West Indies in Britain on the MV Empire Windrush in 1948. Popular culture dictated by whites is so surreptitiously adept at attempting to consume anarchic movements and their modes of expression, disconnecting them from their roots in exchange for commercial success. This unfortunate trend now seems to have been transcended in the US with the rise of political rappers that are more powerful than their record labels, such as J.Cole or Kendrick Lamar.
I am not for one moment suggesting that grime will be depoliticised like much of the US scene, nor that it isn’t already overtly more political than its transatlantic equivalent. With Stormzy (a rapper some consider to have ‘sold-out’) winning the GQ awards for best newcomer and man of the year last night, it was satisfying to hear him endorse Jeremy Corbyn and label Theresa May a ‘paigon’ in his acceptance speech. It was similarly encouraging to see ‘Grime4Corbyn’ become something of a movement on social media in the run up to the election. Endorsements from artists such as JME, Saskilla, AJ Tracey and Big Zuu show that this new allegiance is gaining momentum and proving that grime’s political conscience will not yet be diminished. Similarly, grime has an oracular unit when it comes to political lyricism and many on the scene pay homage to rappers, facilitators and social commentators like Akala or Lowkey or to the Godfather himself, Wiley.
As a movement, it has come much further than a fringe black subculture, it appeals to ethnic minorities and certainly struggling white working class Brits who emerged on the scene with the likes of Devlin and Professor Green. In essence, it is inclusive. This is the real power of grime. YouTube provided a platform for young rappers who wanted to describe their challenging social reality. This was capitalised on by grime moguls like Jamal Edwards, creator of SBTV who laid the foundations for other successful channels such as GRM daily that feature mostly unedited, DIY videos of young rappers performing in their social milieus. A more recent phenomenon is the rise of powerful female rappers like Lady Leshurr or Stefflondon – not wishing to overlook the earlier success of Ms Dynamite.
As I have been notified, there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. There is so much to appreciate about grime. It’s honesty, its humility, its inclusivity and its raw skill. But we must not forget its origins and allow it to become depoliticised or trivialised by ignorant people who listen to its lyrics and seem not to realise that the social realities they describe, remain real life for ethnic minorities and the working classes of Britain.
By Felix Nobes