On Derek Walcott and British Grime

Understanding what Walcott did to liberate West Indian literary traditions can be a lesson for this new vibrant generation of British Grime artists.

Walcott was a New World poet. He knew that to write about anything meant to write about home. This was because Derek Walcott knew that his home, the Caribbean island of St.Lucia, and his provincial position as an island poet was to be his life’s work. He also knew that to write about the Caribbean, to write honestly about its essence, meant to write with thunder:

WALCOTT: Modesty is not possible in performance in the Caribbean — and that’s wonderful. I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and do it and flourish it.

Walcott’s passing made me think about how he managed to liberate the English language by using it to imbue his Caribbean with new forms of expression. To write about home in any artform positions the artist as a contender to the societal traditions of the time. In some tangential way this made me think of similar struggles to reclaim language closer to home — with the emerging artform of Grime.

Roll Deep 2003: Karnage, Breeze, Flow Dan, Wiley, Jamakabi, Danny Weed, Bionics, Dizzee Rascal, Bubbles

I grew up in London, in a place called Neasden. I’ve always thought of my city as a harsh place to learn about living. Inevitably then, the art that I’ve seen emerge from similar experiences tends to be the rattling sort, as loud and as abrasive as Punk of a previous generation. Grime, as an artistic movement and music culture, captures the ugliness and high wonder of the home I find most familiar.

Yet there still tends to be a snide attitude among established institutions as to the worthiness of Grime as musical genre. This is an attitude that also tends to regard any art that emerges from what is casually labelled ‘urban’ or ‘street’ culture as fleeting and cosmetic. Walcott’s work teaches us that this need not matter.

Walcott managed to take the language of his home, his island experiences, and shed it of fetishized, exoticised caricature. Until that point the Caribbean in literature tended to be imbued with a sort of lightness, its people portrayed with a somewhat unsettling docility. Walcott broke free of this tradition. In doing so he allowed everyone to speak to the Caribbean experience with the same conviction as they would Shakespeare or Yeats.

Walcott saw this in the context of colonial oppression, robbing an artist of natural claim to the English language. In typical style he makes this beautiful analogy about the dignity afforded to imagery:

WALCOTT: If Shakespeare says Elm then that’s a noble tree. The Mango tree meanwhile, was not articulated, it was not sanctified and so couldn’t possibly have the dignity of the oak — in the same way a black West Indian could not possibly have the dignity of an Englishman in Warwickshire. [2]

This is what Walcott made possible with his work. He insisted that what he saw — and with that, all the experiences of Caribbean people — were just as intrinsically valid and powerful. His work exists entirely aside from any previous tradition. In a sense it was a reclamation and an assertion:

WALCOTT: The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.

For me Grime is a singular form, as valid as Punk, Folk, Gospel or Hip-Hop. It is also this confidence shown by Walcott that I see among a new generation of Grime artists.

YouTube | BBC Radio 1xtra

This is art that doesn’t owe a thing to any other standard — including hip-hop. Art that grew organically out of London and is claimed and defined by us not them. Grime therefore is also a reclamation and assertion.

This reclamation goes beyond the art itself and also informs the wider culture. Grime is a movement for independence and self-empowerment. Some of the most respected emcees including Skepta and Stormzy promote work without legacy labels, choosing instead to do so under their own banners. This could be seen as a response to being ignored: we no longer need your approval. This non-alignment with the mainstream mechanics of music promotion as well as artistry allows for freedom to create and express on equal terms. That’s what the internet is for, in the end, the leveling of the playing field.

Grime is also a political culture. Threaded through bars we hear pointed, accusatory diction aimed squarely at those in power. If anyone were to ask what current narratives might end up defining the face of Post Brexit Britain, give this new generation a listen. Hear what man like Dave spits about Tory policies on this Fire In The Booth verse, see how Wretch32 asks us with palpable anger ‘Why did we vote leave, why did we vote leave’, and see how Novelist, with almost prose-like construction, rattles out Street Politician.

Yet despite all evidence of depth there is an insistence from mainstream circles to portray this new form as merely juvenilia. In literature, television or film depictions of London youth culture — its language and aesthetic — has most often been portrayed as clownish or comical. Think of Ali G, People Just Do Nothing, the Asian rudeboys from Goodness Gracious Me. Harmless fun. Though the result of this has been the easy dismissal of any art that emerges from that same culture. What Walcott has taught us however, is that the lack of external validation need not impact the art. All we need do is reassert this experience with equal conviction.

WALCOTT: I think young writers ought to be heretical.

The lesson of Walcott is to maintain that heretical station. He taught us to find our own fruit, our worth in ourselves rather than some exterior sentiment. He showed us how to delight in building something new:

WALCOTT: One of the things that people have to look at in West Indian literature is this: that what we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was a great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined…In a sense, you want to give more symmetry to lives that have been undefined. My generation of West Indian writers has felt such a powerful elation at having the privilege of writing about places and people for the first time.

The same day Walcott passed, the inaugural Jhalak prize for writers of colour was announced. Jhalak in Hindi means ‘to briefly see’ or ‘glimpse’ a promise. Walcott, through his work that will live on for future generations, teaches us to keep offering these glimpses, to continue to define the undefined.