Hip-hop in the UK: Why the bad rap? by Joshua Virasami

UK Hip-Hop ensemble ‘Shop Floor Sessions’. Photo by Tyrant ©2014

Dr Cornel West, the uncensored, rugged and fiercely incisive black academic had this honest analysis to present on hip-hop: “Although hip-hop culture has become tainted by the very excesses and amorality it was born in rage against, the best of rap music and hip-hop culture still expresses stronger and more clearly than any cultural expression in the past generations a profound indictment of the moral decadence of our dominant society.”

I caught up with hip-hop scholar SCZ (Sarah Zarantonello), who had just completed her interactive archive “Global Flows: hip hop poetics of transmigration and transcreation as counter hegemonic cultural production”, a thorough exploration of the important roles hip-hop culture plays, such as that of rebuilding broken communities. I asked her how she feels community is manifested by hip-hop cultures in the UK.

“Spaces and places like the People’s Kitchen at Passing Clouds, Poets and Pioneers at D’GAF, LC Collective events, and Itch FM events were where I felt most connected to a sense of belonging in the physical geography of London, an urban metropole where the conditions of empire are omnipresent if you are any type of identifiable other.”

This ability to connect through the sharing of our stories in our own voices is helping to heal feelings of social isolation experienced as part of our social conditions of existence. — SCZ

But how did hip-hop get here?

1980s hip-hop culture burst vibrantly into the UK as housing estates began to be painted with incredibly artistic graffiti and the train riders revolutionised the aesthetics of inner city train networks, most infamously London Underground. Hip-hop music (as opposed to the other four elements) has always manifested a current of its own and from generation to generation within the UK has produced an eclectic set of geniuses in the form of acts like Roots Manuva, Portishead or Jehst.

By the late 1990s, when classic albums such as Council Estate of Mind, The Sagas Of, Return of the Drifter and Original Pirate Material were being released and the seriousness in terms of sales and popularity had been established, the hip-hop community was recognised as a powerful force in society. The grime, road rap and hip-hop music were vibrant and healthy, street poetics were the skill set of every other youth and the microphone prowess only grew stronger. Just on cue the government weighed in. The green light for the scapegoating of hip-hop culture is a practice that persists to this day, especially in the minds of England’s middle and upper classes.

There is a direct link between when then-home secretary David Blunkett said patronisingly in 2003, “We need to talk to the record producers… about what is and is not acceptable” and when Paul Routledge felt able to catalyse national despair during the England riots against hip-hop culture by writing in the Daily Mirror that “in the end only a change of culture, and the way these kids see the world about them, will work. I would ban the broadcasting of poisonous rap”.

If this were true, that the violence is a consequence of “‘idiots like So Solid Crew” who are “glorifying gun culture and crime” then why is it not the case that most of young white middle class suburbia aren’t picking up handguns and ploughing each other down? Statistically, the majority of hip-hop music is sold to non-black communities. The violence in the margins of society is a consequence of the structural violence done to those on the fringes by the corporate cronies and their government goons.

Cultural critic and black feminist Bell Hooks provides a spot-on analysis of the path that British mainstream culture treads very ominously: “The lambasting of hip-hop culture continues, to white-dominated mass media, the controversy over gangsta rap makes great spectacle… a central motivation for highlighting gangsta rap continues to be the sensationalist drama of demonising black youth culture in general… It is a contemporary remake of ‘Birth of a Nation’, only this time we are encouraged to believe it is not just vulnerable white womanhood that risks destruction by black hands but everyone.”

The continued ostracism by the political leadership and highest rungs of the social ladder of hip-hop culture places great strain on social tensions and belittles the crucial role it plays in nursing and reimagining society.

It should be noted that Hip Hop doesn’t create these schisms but it merely creates a space where they can become more apparent. — Sensei C

“An atypical conversation about mass media, hegemony, and the commodification of rap as a product for consumption which co-opts culture, and uses it to reinforce social conditions of existence which maintain power”, said SCZ, “is often where academics who write about hip-hop get stuck.”

No one community dictates the cultural production within the hip-hop community; this is a condescending narrative. This is not to say that outside forces, predominantly the entertainment-industrial complex, do not monopolise the impressions made upon society and also dictate who has the loudest voice within the community. The top 10 radio stations in the UK would rarely if ever play Akala, Amy True or Logic; instead they would only play the hip-hop that peddles the music industry’s yarn of materialism.

Latter-day hip-hop music in the UK has taken countless routes and styles but two stand-out streams have emerged: one proliferating the corporate line and one undoing it. An incredibly socially aware form of hip-hop is emerging and fast becoming a high-powered voice of dissent but also of self exploration, of reclaiming history and of reimagining spirituality, building upon a tradition of hip-hop that emerged in the UK in the late 90s. Branching from this movement of hip-hop music are an abundance of programmes that uplift local communities.

But what of this social upliftment? It’s not difficult to identify the positive contribution of hip-hop culture to daily life in the UK. Take Hip Hop Pop, which provides dance education to 20 primary schools in south-east London or Raw Material music education where hip-hop artists host workshops empowering youth in the art of business, performance and songwriting, serving over 500 participants annually in highly focused sessions.

“Rap club” recently featured in Channel 4’s Educating the East End and showed how teacher Tom Grant provides a space where young emcees have the opportunity to realise how special, powerful and invigorating their words can be. In a brief interview Tom explained that to him, “hip-hop is a wonderful gateway to knowledge, to becoming politicised, to becoming aware of the spectrum of ideas out there”. Hip Hop Psych promotes the use of hip-hop as an aid to the treatment of mental illness, a project pioneered by neuroscientist Becki Inkster and psychiatrist Akeem Sule. Where are the politicians’ acknowledgement? Not that it matters.

I managed to have a chat with Amy True, an up-and-coming UK hip-hop artist, before she headed out to the International Hip-Hop Festival in Kampala with the UK branch of End Of the Weak. Amy explained how they would be “doing production, dance, graffiti and writing workshops with the locals, and also building a studio as well as performing and sharing cultural knowledge to progress together.”

“I think it’s important that we as communities find ways to support one another, investing in the cultural productions that are most meaningful for our understanding of the world as it is, and in moving us towards the world as we want it to be”, she explained.

Yet hip-hop remains undervalued as both a contributor to societal health and a measurement of it. She continues by saying that, “all forms of hip-hop production from the highly visible to the music being recorded in bedroom studios or smartphones around the world contribute to a soundscape of meaning which reflects the social conditions of the current moment”.

Hip-hop cultures have been far from perfect. As a movement reaching maturity in this era of patriarchy, the male voice within it has often inherited the misogyny so dominant in the corporate paradigm, and the violence and oppressive language of the social status quo, something Bell Hooks expands on here. However, many women have used hip-hop culture in their own right, as their own herstory, in order to express their own struggles and feminine power: artists such as Estelle, Lady Dynamite, Shystie, Amy True, Oracy, ShayD, or in the US India Arie, Queen Latifah, Erykah Badhu and Lauryn Hill.

A big part of the divide or rather difference between underground and commercial is to be seen in the intention. Music for its own sake or the culture rather than fame and monetary gain. — Brother Portrait

Hip-hop will continue to be both commercially mainstream and the main stream of decolonization: unbinding the psychological and physical restraints and community building. I caught up with south London poet and rapper Brother Portrait, who spoke of his personal growth through the culture.

“Together, the ‘community education’ was learning through the music and feeling myself (personally through being a listener and liver of the music and artform), part of something bigger. Does this contribute towards the general wellbeing of UK society? I would say not for everyone, but that’s alright. Hip-hop, in essence, is from the margins and for them, to unite and empower.”

As the North American powerhouse of the entertainment industrial-complex rears its head toward the UK it seems that the proliferation of cultural production that aims to further colonise the hearts and minds of young will be a large part of British hip-hop’s fate. Combine this with the fact that “we don’t have a united news source and the most popular out there like grmdaily and sbtv have strayed far from their grassroots beginnings”, according to Brother Portrait, and it seems a struggle of values will continue for a while yet.

In an interview with British rapper Sensei C, he pointed out: “There will always be young thugs telling stories of their tough upbringing and budding intellectuals dissecting the power structures of society. There will always be wannabe gangsters spinning fictitious yarns about moving kilos of cocaine and real-life gangsters giving a blow by blow account of what they see everyday and either one might make million or nothing at all.”

But the culture itself is always available to impart its history; the kick, snare and the microphone confer counterculture in their very existence and the chasm that was deepening between hip-hop history and the current flows is caving in, as SCZ said: “These rhythms pay no mind to the metronome of imperial reason, the logic of these rhythms are found in the bob of a head, the sway of hips and the legitimacy conferred by community.”

But what is happening is not a return to a certain era of hip-hop, it is the birth of a new one, a reflection of a natural consciousness-raising phenomenon in the communities where hip-hop has always resided. It is a unifying force. A reflection of a feeling sweeping across all continents. Even in middle-class suburbia hip-hop’s reach often provides alternative education and community building.

MOBO award-winning hip-hop artist Akala is often quoted as saying: “If Shakespeare were alive today he would instead be a rapper.” He explains that the Globe Theatre was on the peripheries of central London’s power both physically and metaphorically. Although William flirted with power, he also spoke truth to it much as hip-hop culture has done and continues to do to this day.

Joshua can be followed at @joshuavirasami on twitter

Originally published at www.contributoria.com.

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