One of the most remarkable aspects of the general election was the extent to which young people rallied behind Jeremy Corbyn. Approximately 250,000 registered to vote on deadline day alone and two thirds of those who cast a ballot voted for Labour.
That electoral surge included the frankly astonishing sight of the decidedly uncool Corbyn being hailed by a host of young black musicians including Akala, Riz Ahmed and JME. Moreover that support coalesced into a movement, #grime4corbyn, and a range of activities including a campaign rally in north London.
Most of the mainstream media don’t begin to understand the reasons behind this wave of enthusiasm. Noting that the Labour leader has the same initials as Jesus Christ, for example, Newsnight anchor Evan Davis wondered whether his supporters simply flocked to Corbyn like faithful disciples following the Messiah.
The plain truth is that this was a class vote by a generation who have been betrayed by those who have held office and power throughout their lives.
Artists such as Awate, Maxsta and Krucial and interviewees at the north London rally made it clear that they were enthused by Corbyn’s anti-racism, his promise to abolish tuition fees, opposition to austerity, war and his commitment to protecting the environment.
An examination of the development of grime helps to place this engagement into context. Clearly the genre has its roots in American hip hop, but it would be far too simplistic to describe grime as its British version. Grime erupted onto the music scene in the early 2000s drawing its influence from UK garage, drum and bass, ragga and dancehall as well as rap.
It emerged from a particular place, the rough, tough working class estates of Bow. One of the main reasons grime has a huge following, no longer just in its east London birthplace but across urban Britain, is because the artists look and sound like their audience. They rap about things that are familiar to young people and their videos reference local landmarks.
Grime is not for the faint hearted. As its name suggests, it is typically raw and gritty, with performers rapping furiously over quickfire beats. Undeniably much of it is crude, insular and macho bullshit with competing crews lunging at video cameras while spewing testosterone-fuelled profanities at their rivals.
In a world dominated by sexist, selfish and materialist ideas this is hardly surprising. Yet this is a generation whose chances of acquiring the trappings of capitalist success is being wrecked by institutional racism, austerity and neoliberalism. In such oppressive circumstances it is little wonder too that some of the rivalries that are stoked up occasionally escalate into real and shocking violence.
One of grime’s pioneers was Dizzy Rascal, winner of the 2003 Mercury Music Prize for his debut album Boy in da Corner. That is precisely who Dylan Mills was: a black youth destined for a predictable future of educational exclusion, underachievement and possibly incarceration who was rescued when his lyrical talents were spotted and nurtured.
Fast forward to 2016 and Dizzy’s prize winning successor Skepta. Konnichiwa includes familiar scenarios. On Crime Riddim a trivial argument at a rave culminates in the humiliation of a public strip search with the artist spitting at the “Feds”: “Fuck that I ain’t a chippendale, wanna strip a male, put me in a prison cell.” Elsewhere he highlights the all too frequent shutting down and enforced cancellation of “urban” gigs, and harassment of black youth.
Welcome though Skepta’s success was, Konnichiwa wasn’t even the best grime album on the Mercury shortlist. If this was an old school clash it would be left trailing in the wake of Kano’s Made in the Manor. The storytelling and videos for T-Shirt Weather in the Manor and This is England brilliantly contrast the simple pleasures of summer — ice cream, BBQs, drink, dance, getting high, getting laid — with the grim realities of urban life.
Grime’s biggest current star is undoubtedly south London’s Stormzy. His eagerly awaited debut album Gang Signs & Prayer is a tour de force full of sonic and lyrical contrasts. It is belligerent and boastful but also brittle with moments of real tenderness. He “disses” his rivals and rhymes frankly about his time as a drug runner and gang member. Elsewhere he opens up about his mental health issues, his religious faith and adoration of his mother.
Stormzy was one of the artists who came out most vociferously for Corbyn having previously declared his support for the relaunch of Love Music Hate Racism. As Theresa May’s demise was confirmed he tweeted “Lol ha ha”.
Meanwhile JME urged his followers, “Give yourselves a pat on the back. Stay involved, grow up listening and learning, vote for who’s ‘best’ at the time.”
Good on them, though young people shouldn’t simply wait for the next election however soon that may be. Instead the coalition that coalesced around #grime4corbyn should continue, encourage and provide a fitting soundtrack for the struggles to come.
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