Why critics of the UK grime scene’s new diverse audience need to “Fix Up, Look Sharp”
Grime is intrinsic to London’s story. Beyond the working-class area it was created in, its evolution and resurgence portrays how today’s younger generations can share a culture not limited by class or race. So why do some seem to be so intent on excluding people from the scene?
When I sit and discuss the latest ‘Fire in the Booth’ freestyle with my middle-class Oxbridge educated colleague at work, should I be mindful of the cultural appropriation that I am apparently encouraging? Or do I rejoice in the fact that two people from, supposedly, different worlds can come together and share in something that was once a clear symbol of division and inequality. Do I need to explain the poverty in which I grew out of in order for others to understand where and who I am now? Is grime really only for the working class?
Grime has well and truly returned to its rightful place as THE sound of London’s streets. This art form, characterised by its 140bpm, its bellicosity and challenge to society, gave voice to the struggles of London’s working class communities when the world clearly couldn’t care less. However, whilst elements of grime remain very much underground, today you no longer need to hunt for the frequency of your local pirate radio station for a one off chance to hear your favourite artists clash — just turn on the television and you can see north London grime mc, Skepta, stand side by side on stage with Kanye West.
Grime is so much more than just a story of the struggle of the city’s working class — it’s a story of social cohesion, of immigration, and a celebration of all that it is to be a Londoner. The scene, which yes, grew out of working class poverty, has shown itself to be inclusive, irrespective of class, colour, income or gender. There’s a mutually-supportive element to the music that embodies a youthful entrepreneurialism and aspiration to succeed without compromise, to not sell out — and importantly, an indifference to deference. Simply put, grime is great for the fact that it’s raw, it’s untainted and uniquely, it’s all of ours.
Why is this important? Because in the age of hyper-gentrification, it seems a cohort of voices want to firmly stick their flag in the re-emerging scene by denigrating and excluding newcomers. These are the same voices that move from the Home Counties into an ex-council flat in Brixton, while pontificating over the latest small plates modern European £50 a head restaurant, that Brixton is “not what it used to be”.
Commentators such as Poppie Platt, who recently authored a piece for the Independent, “Grime isn’t just music — it’s about working-class struggle — and its new middle-class fans need to recognise the genre’s social importance” protest that grime’s recent successes is nothing more than ‘cultural appropriation’ of UK working-class culture. This view not only misunderstands and hazardously misuses the term cultural appropriation but fundamentally misinterprets both the journey that grime has taken and why young, middle-class kids absolutely should be part of the scene.
When does appreciation become appropriation? Would it be better if these young artists remained ‘in the hood’ so that we can feel some degree of authenticity for our sensationalist impression of what it was like to grow up poor in London in the 90’s and 2000’s? Such arguments assume too little of the demographic they seek to criticize by arguing that these middle class students who buy these albums are not aware of the “struggle” and “culture” from which it is borne.
Grime was born 15 years ago in Bow, East London as a hybridization of numerous forms of music, drawing influence from Hip Hop, UK Garage, Dancehall, Jungle and drum’n’bass. In the same vein that grime emerged, it continued, absorbing influence from the growing multiracial communities in the UK. For example, today we see numerous artists such as J Hus infusing afrobeats with grime and creating a whole new sound in itself. Similarly, grime has influenced other genres, leading to songs such as Ojuelegba, performed by afrobeats star, Wizkid, detailing his struggles as an underground artist in Lagos, featuring Skepta and Drake.
Grime should therefore be understood as a culture, not simply a statement of one’s social class. It’s not helpful to put the ethos that stems from such an inclusive, wide-ranging musical form into a narrowly restrictive box. As Jammer once said “grime is not a bpm, it’s a lifestyle, grime is how you feel about music, what you’re saying on it and what you’re wearing… it’s a part of the UK!” To understand grime only in the context of struggle is to insult the pioneers of grime because “struggle” is not the only characteristic that describes them, or a person in poverty. The new generation of kids growing up with grime are from all walks of life, but they understand what it is to lovethe culture. It is their support that is pushing the culture even further, helping it grow and reach new audiences.
As a musical form, grime takes its cue from the get up and go attitude that has come to define young Brits who are less willing to sit idly by in acceptance of a 9–5 lifestyle. It’s the same sentiment that captivated so many kids with the Punk scene of the 1970’s, a lyrical “fuck you to the system, we can do this by ourselves”. It taps into the same sentiment that across the world and throughout history has inspired people to refuse to accept their lot. Just because a kid never experienced police brutality doesn’t mean they can’t understand the sentiment behind ‘Fuck tha police’. Should I cover my ears when The Specials perform Ghost Town because I’m not from ex-industrial West Midlands? Why do we encourage working class kids to raise their cultural capital by listening to Bach and Beethoven, but in the same breath condemn middle-class kids for wanting to learn from JME and Akala?
This is where reductive claims of cultural appropriation cause more harm than good. It’s important to recognise grime is not simply about being poor and struggling. More than that, it’s an embodiment of working class aspirational entrepreneurialism. When in the early 2000’s a new generation of producers began making music in their houses, kitted out with a few egg boxes, a borrowed copy of Fruity Loops 3 and a few MCs testing out new styles, flows and insults, the first generation of bedroom producers proved that great music can be made without the backing of a major record label.
There are other precedents to support this view. In the 1980s, hip hop emerged from the streets of New York in a similar way. But it needed those pesky middle-class white kids to hear what they had to say as much as they needed the black kids. NWA almost brought the establishment to its knees in the ‘90’s with its hard hitting lyrics about the realities of being black and poor in America.
American has enculturated hip hop and it is now ingrained into the very fibre of the country — it’s in every car and every bar. Why would we not want grime to follow a similar path? When we embrace music from diverse cultures, we are granted with opportunities to learn from them and, in turn, gain a stronger understanding of our own. It plays an important role in the construction of our identities and in how we perceive and understand others, and ultimately ourselves. America is learning every day from artists such as Kendrick Lamar, who is perpetually shifting paradigms with songs like King Kunte, stirring up conversations about America’s colonial past. Similarly, this year Stormzy performed at the BBC Proms taking grime to an entire new audience — when these new fans sit down to discuss the new music they just heard they are growing the art and educating themselves.
Instead of getting wrapped up in arguments of appropriation, sceptics should embrace interest in grime from middle-class kids, an interest that forces them to rethink whatever preconceptions of the working class (and in some cases young black men) they may have built up.
The manner in which grime has grown is testament to its inclusiveness — we should be celebrating the music as a true sign that London and the UK really is the melting pot most of us wish it to be! Yes, the sound may have come from the working class streets of East London 15 years ago, but its ability to follow the tides of our changing country symbolises just why grime cannot be confined to such a simplistic understanding of ‘music for inner-city street kids’. Grime can be for everyone, so don’t hold it back