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First Things First: Grime as a Combative Force in the Fight Against Racial Discrimination
“I’m not a rapper, I’m an activist.” – (Skepta, 2016)
This past year, I lived in the UK for just under seven months while I was on a Go Global exchange working on my degree. I lived in Birmingham, a city situated about a 2-hour train ride from London; as a result, I frequently made trips out to London to visit friends and family and explore the city. I ended up learning a great deal about British culture as I lived with domestic students and travelled within the country.
In the UK, a genre of music known as Grime contributes significantly to club culture as one of the most popular genres of music in the nightlife scene. Names such as Stormzy, Skepta and Dizzie Rascal were all Grime artists I had no knowledge of up until my arrival in the UK, but who I would quickly learn had a strong impact on British culture and politics alike. In addition, the multicultural population in London means that many fashion trends and mannerisms originating from the Caribbean and Northern Africa have greatly influenced those of London’s white population. It is thus ironic that Grime – a genre whose artists are for the majority Black – continues to be a target for discrimination and censorship. This essay will first provide an overview of Grime and its relationship with London’s culture, before exposing the ways in which this genre has been disproportionately stereotyped and silenced. In articulating this, I argue that Grime is not the crime-perpetuating genre it has been stigmatized as, but rather is a strong platform for Black people and organizations to use their voices to speak out against racial injustices that continue to encapsulate England.
In order to fully comprehend the influence held by Grime artists in the UK, one must understand that it is a genre independent of American hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino. The genre of Grime is a hybrid of Jamaican sound-system culture, African musical traditions and UK Garage music; the dialect, accents and slang of the lyrics are characteristic of “London-English,” a grammatical blend of Caribbean, English and African components (Perera, 2018). It has also been suggested that the fast tempo and drum and bass feel of the music is meant to symbolize the fast-paced London life (Perera, 2018). Is it a stretch? Maybe, but it’s not wrong. Grime frequently weaves political commentary into its music, with themes of inequality, classism, and oppression often present in its songs; Paul Gilroy has argued that “black music possesses an inner philosophical doctrine and morality that confronts power with truth” (Gilroy, 1993 in Perera, 2018). In other words, music by Black artists will continue to push forward these themes because they reflect the experiences of Black people. Grime is inherently political simply because it serves as a voice for young black people who have been discriminated against by means of race and class.
The 2017 UK Primeministerial election in particular saw Grime at the forefront of media coverage for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. About 58% of all Grime fans in the UK, composed of young, predominantly black, working-class people voted Labour; this resulted in a hung parliament and caused the Conservative Party to lose its majority (Perera, 2018). UK rapper Stormzy likely contributed to this through his many public endorsements of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Additionally, the hashtag #Grime4Corbyn emerged during the elections, revealing the significance of Grime’s influence on raising the political awareness of young voters, especially those who may be voting for the first time (Perera, 2018). Thus emerged the realisation that the ethics and social commentary embedded in Grime regarding the working-class life needed to be acknowledged to promote social change (Perera, 2018). I would like to mention here that given the status of my visa in the UK, I was given the opportunity to vote in this year’s election, and my personal decision to vote Labour was one influenced by the media coverage surrounding the Party, as well as the endorsement by several young Grime artists including Stormzy. It should be noted that although Stormzy himself is not necessarily considered to be a traditional Grime artist – adhering to specific traits of drum and bass, quicker tempos, and rave beats – he still holds influence over its fans.
One of Stormzy’s most notable uses of his platform was at the 2018 Brit Awards. During his performance, he made a statement regarding the UK Government’s handling of the Grenfell disaster, in which a 24-storey tower caught fire and killed 72 people (Perera, 2018). Those affected came from predominantly minority families and it was discovered after the fact that government spending cuts and deregulation contributed to the level of devastation caused by the fire (Perera, 2018). During his performance, Stormzy called out Teresa May, the UK’s former Prime Minister, demanding the victims be provided with new housing and financial compensation for their losses (Perera, 2018). More recently, Stormzy released a single in promotion of his new album Heavy is the Head called “Vossi Bop,” in which he directly calls out the UK’s current Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his lyrics, “F--- the government and F--- Boris” (Andoh-Munar et al., 2019). The lyrical content of Grime is not always political, nor is it a requirement of the genre to be outspoken regarding political issues. However, the fact of the matter is that many of the themes present in Grime are experienced for the majority by young black people, allowing them to speak out about the racism in the UK that is often suppressed in media. Many of Stormzy’s songs for example discuss his experience growing up in a lower-income family and struggling with education, employment and housing; in doing this, he is not only deciding to be political in his lyrics, but also rapping about his experience growing up in a world of class-based and racial discrimination (Perera 2018).
Accompanying the emergence of Grime as characteristic of British entertainment and nightlife is the increasing stigmatization of it as a racialized genre. The media has increasingly begun to replace the word “Urban” with “Grime” as a blanket term for any music produced or performed by Black UK artists when this is not true (Perera, 2018). Media portrayal of Grime has marginalized the young black working class by associating the entire genre with knife crime and gang-related behavior and consequently facilitating racial discrimination against Black people.
Arguments are made by the London Metropolitan Police that the lyrical content of Grime music glamourizes gang and drug selling lifestyles as well as promotes the carrying of weapons and the use of violence (Fatsis, 2019). Attempts have been made to create legislations to criminalize Grime, going so far as using it as evidence in court proceedings to create connections between song lyrics describing violence and actual murder cases (Fatsis, 2019). These are dangerous assumptions to make as they result in over-generalizing not only Grime artists and their music but also their fanbases; promoting the stereotype of a Black-majority musical genre as encouraging violence and crime is racist and disproportionately targets Black people in a time where police brutality and racial discrimination is already a major issue.
There have been many instances where Grime artists have been the target of discriminatory sanctions as a result of the music they perform. Criminal Behavior Orders (CBOs) have even been issued to several artists whose music videos on Youtube were used as intelligence in suspected grime or gang-related cases, without any concrete proof there were any such links (Fatsis, 2019). CBOs themselves are not sentences but do prevent those holding them from associating with certain people, having social media or owning private cell phones; breaching one can result in being fined or incarcerated (Fatsis, 2019). Two examples of Grime music being policed include the case of Skengdo and AM from the group 410, and the case of a music video for the artist Balistic. 410 received a suspension for the live performance of a song called “Attempted 1.0” when its lyrics were alleged to threaten violence against a rival gang. Although no evidence ever surfaced of any of the group’s members belonging to any gang, 410 ended up being classified as one and are now banned from going to certain parts of London or making any references to individuals or events in their music (Fatsis, 2019). During the filming of one of his music videos, police officers armed with machine guns stormed Balistic and his crew; MetPol later explained that they were responding to a report about a firearm, but no evidence of any criminal activity was ever found (Fatsis, 2019). These are merely two instances of racial profiling against Grime artists but there have been many more cases.
Fortunately, recent years have shown progression of the acceptance of Grime music as human rights organizations, various musicians and lawyers have joined forces in condemning these acts and pushing for protection for artists and their music. As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum in both the UK and the US, so has the intolerance for criminalizing an entire genre in the music industry. By exposing the institutionalized racism and prejudicial nature of the allegations against Grime artists, these accusations lose their credibility as efficient policing tools and thus have no grounds for criminalization (Fatsis, 2019). This has consequently transformed Grime from a topic of political and criminal debate to an influential and creative outlet for the young, Black population in the UK and a defining member of British art culture (Woods, 2017).
Artists such as Skepta are now using their platforms and music both as commentary on their own experiences while simultaneously calling out their government’s failure to protect its marginalized groups. Skepta’s song “Shutdown” is a commentary on the censorship of Grime artists by Form 696, which requires the disclosure of the address, phone number and full names of any artists considered to be Grime who perform live with a backing track (Woods, 2017). The song’s lyrics additionally comment on the racial bias of the London Metropolitan Police, and a skit is featured halfway through the song referencing backlash Skepta encountered after he and dozens of Grime artists joined Kanye West onstage at the 2015 Brit Awards; this was considered by Conservative groups to be “intimidating” (Woods, 2017). The skit sheds a light on the pettiness of those who oppose Grime artists; many so-called complaints about Grime stem from racist stereotyping about Black people and artists and would not be considered “political” or “problematic” were they performed by white artists.
It is clear that Grime has evolved beyond an underground genre of music to the defining feature of British pop culture that it is today. Artists including Skepta, Stormzy and others have used the platforms they have been given to lift the voices of marginalized communities in London and across the UK, while continuing to create music enjoyed by everyone. , racial prejudice and discrimination has resulted in stigmatizing this genre as perpetuating crime and violence, ignoring the fact that there is no foundation for such allegations. Black Lives Matter is a movement that is supported through the promotion of Black art – be that dance, fine art or music – and Grime is a genre encompassing a multitude of topics that can intersect with it.
Recommended Songs by Grime/British Artists
Shutdown – Skepta
That’s Not Me – Skepta
Vossi Bop – Stormzy
First Things First - Stormzy
Attempted 1.0 – AM
You’ve Got The Dirtee Love – Dizzie Rascal and Florence + The Machine
Bassline Junkie – Dizzie Rascal