Tory leader David Cameron’s attempts to “rebrand” the Conservatives as young, hip and trendy took a knock recently when he launched a nasty attack on the British hip-hop and grime scene for allegedly encouraging knife and gun crime.
The row started when Cameron attacked Tim Westwood’s BBC Radio 1 show, which showcases hip-hop, grime and other urban music, in front of an audience of magazine executives.
Lethal Bizzle, a rising star of the grime scene who has worked with Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR), sprang to the defence of Westwood and British black music.
“There are too many differences in society with class – you live in a different world, and you don’t experience the things that kids go through today,” he wrote in an open letter to Cameron.
The Tory leader replied in a Mail on Sunday article headlined “You’re Talking Rubbish, Lethal Bizzle”. In it he wrote that “young and impressionable people are given the message, in song after song, that guns, knives and other weapons are glamorous”.
He singled out Lethal for criticism on this score – though the lyrics he quoted were from another MC – and accused “some of the material on the airwaves” of being homophobic and misogynist.
So what is going on here? Anyone who saw the picture accompanying the Mail on Sunday article would know who Cameron’s attacks were really targeted at. He’s lecturing young black men for the music they produce and the working class for listening to it.
This is just coded racism. Cameron is suggesting that crime is committed, glorified and even enjoyed by black people because of certain “cultural” attitudes. As he says himself, “There is another part of society that needs to take a long hard look at itself.”
All of this comes in a climate of press hysteria that seeks to demonise young people – and young black men in particular – as hoodie wearing, knife wielding thugs. This is on top of the bigotry in the press directed against Muslims, asylum seekers and “foreign criminals”.
By attacking hip-hop and grime, Cameron is reinforcing the idea that social problems such as crime are the fault of its victims – the poor, the black and the working class. Popular culture is being used as a scapegoat to avoid talking about poverty and racism.
We should not be fooled into taking at face value what the politicians, major record companies and the media think black music is.
If you watch music stations such as Channel U, you will find heaps of hip-hop and grime that, far from glorifying violence, reflects on the real problems of society and tells it like it is.
This is music that is not ashamed to talk about the inequality and violence that are part of daily life for most working class people, black and white.
And while there are aspects of grime and hip-hop that fit the “gangsta and bling” stereotype, these things are hardly unique to British urban music.
Cameron doesn’t see fit to complain about the glorification of violence involved in promoting war in Iraq, or the sexism of magazines such as FHM or Loaded.
As Lethal Bizzle put it, “Violence has been glorified from before the day I was born. It’s been glorified through cartoons, through the TV, through the movies and what’s really happening in the world.
“I can’t rule out music, but I feel what we talk about are things that are happening today. Whether we talk about it or not, it’s happening out there.”
At the end of the day, Cameron’s “new style of politics” is just old style racism dressed up in a veneer of “community concern”. Thankfully, the young musicians and the people who listen to them are asking deeper questions.