2016: The Year Of The Underdog

The headlines of 2016 have been dominated by politics. Whether it be at home with the European referendum leading to the UK leaving the EU after 41 years or the ever-changing faces of leading political parties; to the controversial decision to elect Donald J Trump as the 45th United States president across the pond – it has been hard to escape the “doom and gloom” of the news.

What 2016 will also be remembered for is the recognition and mainstream exposure of the outliers of the UK music scene. Skepta beat the likes of David Bowie and Radiohead to win the prestigious Mercury Music Prize and growing number of prolific grime additions made it on to the UK festival circuit. So, it should come as no surprise that the two trends have collided and artists have used their platforms to express concern, raise awareness and act as activists on several key issues.

As the 2011 riots hinted, young people in particular are frustrated. Seemingly not interested in voting and thus ignored by election manifesto policy; facing housing crises and zero-hour contracts; locked out of the top city jobs and positions of influence in pop culture unless born into the privately schooled 7 per cent: a voice of expression has to come from somewhere. 2016 has seen further alienation of the youth from political affairs. It is this lack of representation that has fed an engagement with the anarchic style of an East London genre born over 10 years ago. A genre that presents an opposition to capitalistic manufacturing, gentrification, anger-fed messages on complex political issues, and a strong subculture at its core.

But with a foundation built on racial oppression and class struggle, should this homegrown reaction really come as a surprise?

Grime was born in the early 2000s, a time when the government had brought in the ASBO initiative and increased CCTV surveillance in its aim to be “tough on the causes of crime”. Alongside this, was a welcoming of large corporate businesses and urban developers into inner-city communities. This set of political stands created a juxtaposition and larger inequality in society. The tail end of the 2000’s also saw a debate over the Metropolitan Police’s Form 696 which unfairly targeted black music events [their official line was to tackle “large promoted events between 10pm and 4am which feature MCs and DJs performing to recorded backing tracks”]. As a result of this dilution of its original raw sound and from the ever-growing presence of outside pressure, the Grime scene inverted, going back underground.

2008’s austerity measures were felt deepest within these communities leaving a feeling that they were being cut off. With major cuts in youth services leading to feelings of angst and contempt within young men, this isolation helped the raw sounds of grime to blossom again as neglected youths looked out at the “unobtainable futurism of the city from positions of poverty”. In his 2013 book ‘Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime’, Dan Hancox claimed that grime was “the sound of the future city that kids always dreamed of, even while grime’s lyrics describe with molecular detail the dirt of the MCs’ vividly quotidian lives; MCs were teenagers growing up in the poorest parts of London, in the grounded world of New Labour Britain”. Post New Labour things got even more grounded.

Those early lyrics told the reality of daily lives, from drug dealing and gang affiliations and served as a reminder to what the youth were facing. While the mainstream media and politicians were looking to “hug a hoodie”, this alienation of young men and women only served as further fuel to their fire. When Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Music prize in 2003 for ‘Boy in Da Corner’, he accepted the award by thanking God, his family and “everyone in the underground”. The album itself was a perfect example of the picture being painted by the genre, as he rapped about knife crime, local shootings, teenage pregnancy, and depression. It also gave us our first look at how the scene viewed its political leaders and the government above them. On the track ‘Hold Ya Mouf’, Dizzee sprayed with venom as he declared that; “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair.”

In this initial stage, grime served as an outlet for a portion of society who didn’t have a voice and the genre was the unofficial voice of the oppressed. With such a new genre, questions were always asked of the potential future but in that moment, it didn’t matter. The pirate radio sets and underground recording sessions of 2002/3 became unsanctioned youth clubs and grime was shared internally via Bluetooth and mixtapes, building networks of friends and fellow grime listeners. Young people owned grime and every artist who achieved success was a win for the community.

In the years that followed, several grime artists looked to emulate the success of Dizzee but the results were not the same. While artists such as Roll Deep, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk were signed up to labels and pushed to a larger audience, the sound had softened and no longer were these artists speaking on issues which affected young people and their community. In their desire to achieve mainstream appeal, they lost touch with their earlier supporters and it could be argued that they could never be “activists” due to strict label constraints.

This didn’t stop everyone though as showed by Lethal Bizzle back in 2006, who challenged David Cameron [then the leader of the Conservative opposition] for criticising rap music for encouraging violence. Lethal Bizzle wrote in The Guardian that “David Cameron is a donut” instead encouraging him to do more for young people and youth services. In what was deemed a passivist era for the genre, this argument stood out even more, gaining larger mainstream attention.

The reality is that it is not themes of Grime that have changed since those early days but the exposure it has been given and the audience that now listen in. The core DNA of the scene, as explained before, was built on oppression and its music served as its fight. The idea of people speaking up is nothing new, we saw it with Dizzee and there are people like Akala and Lowkey who have spoken on controversial topics from war and police stereotyping for years.

Ghetts, an OG of the scene who recorded ‘Rebel’ back in 2014 states that “Grime was and still is political” while Nation of Billion’s own DJ Semtex says that “The essence of grime is that it is anti-establishment and its messages are representative of a youth that feels disenfranchised and disconnected. Grime gives voice to the voiceless.” But in 2016, the limelight has been pointed directly at the genre and these same artists are being given a larger platform on which to speak.

On the 30th April 2015, Skepta arranged via Twitter to invite fans down to a car park in Shoreditch, East London. His fans obliged, with over 2,000 in attendance and Skepta revelled in the moment, getting them all to shout “fuck the police” in unison as he wore a jacket with ANARCHY IS THE KEY across the back. The moment marked a shift within the scene itself as the sound was indiscernibly “authentic” again, with his hit ‘Shutdown’ being a perfect example. The thumping instrumental allows him to preach as he raps “Me and my Gs ain’t scared of police / We don’t listen to no politician”. He also proclaimed that he “dashed his voting card in the bin” on’Back Then’, displaying his own disillusionment with the government which young people could relate to. His stage shows and ‘Konnichiwa’ marketing campaign were emblazoned with newspaper storylines and his videos, especially ‘Man’, had an almost guerrilla tactic feel to them.

Showing that his affiliation with Anarchism was more than just a tattoo, Skepta took to Twitter at the end of 2015 following the news that the United Kingdom would be engaging air strikes in Syria. Even though the tweet was short [a simple SMH (Shake My Head) in David Cameron’s direction], it showed that Skepta was not afraid to speak out. Another MC who stepped up to speak on the Syrian debate was Stormzy who tweeted that “These politicians should put on their combats and go Syria themselves”.

While Skepta was praised for speaking on what was hotly debated issue, Stormzy had fans telling him to “shut up and stick to music”. When he posted on Instagram that “I ain’t waiting till a fed kills one of my bredrins before I rise up” [in reference to the Black Lives Matter campaign], he had a fair amount of responses from fans telling him that they “ain’t racist in anyway or form” and that he should “stop posting this crap”, or, that it was “more likely another black person will shoot your dad before a cop will.” In many ways, this made his statements even more important – he reached directly to people who would never normally engage with the concepts that black lives matter movement are trying to foreground. And it served as another reason why we need these predominant figureheads to speak up on these issues. Never one to back to back down, he responded through his verse on his collaboration with Chip, ‘Hear Dis’;

“They said I can’t tweet bout the government, why can’t I be free anymore? I will extort these racist clubs and feds who can’t move me anymore”.

This approach by both Skepta and Stormzy hark back to the genre’s inception, with its “never back down” attitude and ability to speak on a variety of issues. This includes tackling the government back home and no one has done that better in 2016 then MC Novelist who ended 2015 on a bang with his crudely named ‘David Cameron Riddim’, he kicked off the year with his anti-establishment hit ‘Street Politician’. As well as sampling Cameron, Nov paints a bleak picture of the endz as he speaks on the police [“Who’s criminals? Us or them?”], the government [“When the government talks shit, it bores me”] and most importantly, his freedom of speech; “Fuck feds and fuck everyone in the world. That don’t want me to be vocal!”

Novelist didn’t stop there with his follow up release in January 2016, ‘Break in Your House’, where he lamented the mandem are not utilising their right to vote; “Not enough man like me are voting / But man are on the blocks, chatting shit, moaning.” His homegrown movement led to the formation of group Tugg Set, with themes of anti-establishment running through its core. At his live shows, Novelist will scream out “Fuck the Tory government!” as boos turn to rapturous cheers and he is firm supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Jacob Davey commented on his rise in his Complex article at the beginning of the year entitled Is 2016 The Year Grime Becomes An Anarchist Genre? when he said “it might well be time for grime to get fully anarchic and inspire this generation to protest against a political system that continues to disregard their interests”.

Novelist certainly looked up to his prophecy, being active within the Black Lives Matter UK campaign and famously joining a London march with the sign “STOP KILLING THE MANDEM”. The picture itself was shared via social media and led to thousands of people being involved in what was a worldwide debate that resonated with people in the UK. Novelist’s prominent presence during the Black lives matter protests was very important – he’s a young black man with talent building his foundations to secure a comfortable future, he is just like any young person trying to get by and the fact he became a focal point of that demonstration delivers the hard hitting message to a generation, Novelist’s generation – that if we don’t speak up now the next generation will suffer tomorrow. DJ and grime ambassador Sian Anderson notes that while Novelist’s actions may not be a catalyst for change, it certainly helped spark a debate;

“I’m not sure if it’s encouraged other people to do the same but it’s certainly encouraged people to do their research. The main question anyone would have seeing a picture of Novelist in a “David Cameron Hates The Mandem” t-shirt is ‘why?’ and at that time I did see a lot of conversation from fans trying to understand his message, equally saw a lot of fans who already understood his message and were educating the fans who didn’t get it. Education is key so that’s a push forward whether you agree with Novelist or not”.

The events surrounding the Black Lives Matter UK movement pushed rappers from Nolay and Craze 24 to make tracks on the issue and Boiler Room even held a number of roundtable events on the topic including the likes of Darcus Howe, Novelist and Big Narstie. Britain is a rich landscape of differing races and cultures and we have managed to coexist and appreciate each other especially the next generation, through music. The UK’s problems are hidden in a system soiled with systematic failings but our youths interact and blend with each other. As we know, artists are not immortals and they too have felt or observed injustices within our systems and recognise that they manifest themselves differently across the globe. Artists wield a power with their words and have something extremely special that politicians, establishments and the government don’t – respect and relatability from our youth. Grime artists in particular draw from their environments for their lyrical content, they are the impactful voices of an oppressive system and they use their voices to speak out about the struggles which they have.

While the examples of Novelist, Stormzy and Skepta show that there are artists willing to showcase their views and opinions, it seems that the idea of “grime anarchism” failed when it came to event that affected the present generation. The 2016 EU referendum will be remembered as a decision that wasn’t decided by young people and this incidence, grime was nowhere to be seen. As politicians were riding around the country scouting for voters, Grime had an ultimate opportunity to reach out but kept silent. A Channel 4 news story ran on artists from P Money, Big Narsite and So Solid Crew speaking on the Brexit vote and the underwhelming response was summed up by grime legend Wiley who said “When there is people controlling the country, no matter what you and me think, it’s gonna be their [the system’s decision]”. This lack of response from the scene highlighted the juxtaposition between the idea of Grime becoming an anarchist genre as Jacob Davey suggested in January and the reality we are faced with 12 months later.

Reaction focused music has also dominated the airwaves with artists using the medium of music to speak on issues or events that have been dominating the news headlines. North London artist Avelino turned to music to speak on a sensitive issue with the release of his track ‘The World Is Watching’ which focused on the shootings of young black men in the US. After seeing the events unfold, Avelino knew that he had to make a track; “I might make songs about girls and maybe some ignorant stuff but just because I do that, who is to say that I can’t make some tunes about honest life and stand up and be counted?… I just think it was important to do something because at the end of the day, you could say that it is just a US problem but it’s a human problem”.

Following the decision to leave the EU, rapper TE dness took to Soundcloud and released “EU Referendum”, a track focused on the effect the leave vote could have.  He talks about how a strengthened border could stop the importation of good and the effect it could have on migrants. When asked why he made the track, he said that “The topic had been dominating most of my conversations in that week on the run up to the results so it just continued over into the music” but also believed that while 2016 has allowed artists to express on issues they care about, we have not seen enough of a shift towards activism on these same issues;

“I think people care but not enough to go out of their way to try and help change anything”

When looking back at the past 12 months, it may seem that the establishment won. With the wave of right wing sentiment across the UK, US and Europe spreading like the plague, 2016 will be remembered for both its negatives and positives. The attention given to the UK scene has allowed artists to prosper and as such as given them a platform to speak. Artists are creating their own careers and adopting an organic and DIY approach with their music. This in turn has resonated with their fans and showed them another form of expression.

In fact, speaking out and being heard is nothing new for a scene which had to fight and shout to be recognised. But now that the artists have gotten there, it is more about how they will use it. Gone are the times when artists had to pander to label bosses and sponsors in order to get paid. The appeal of many of these artists is that they can be themselves and speak on what they want to speak on.

Unfortunately what we haven’t seen in 2016 is change. While artists speak out, the government continue to overlook the problems and as fans, we continue to wonder why. On what seems like an everyday basis, we as the public are failed by our “leaders” and we look to our figureheads for support. But Sian Anderson comments that grime’s anarchistic ideals will fail to be recognised by government in it’s current state;

“You have to remember democracy, their [government’s] policy has never been to log onto SoundCloud and YouTube and act on what MC’s have said about them in lyrics, their ‘system’ works in another way. Petitions, votes and such stuff. Until MC’s start speaking in their language then there’s not much notice they can take”. 

For me, 2016 was a transitional year for the scene. While our artists were able to access their fans and talk on a variety of issues from the Black Lives Matter campaign to the Syrian conflict, we seemed to fall at the final hurdle. For 2017, we should be looking ahead to what else we can do to support these artists and ensure that we do see a change for the good. If we view Grime as a genre at 13 years old, then the next few years is a time for the genre to truly come into it’s own and be recognised by not just a larger audience but the ones who can influence change.