I’m trying to win this article. Six words in, and I’m already setting out my stall. I’m determined to use every last weapon in my journalistic arsenal, my wit, my knowledge, my turn of phrase, to fully convince you of whatever it is I’m trying to convince you of. I’ll do whatever it takes. Look at the language: ‘determined’, ‘weapon’, ‘arsenal’, ‘win’. And it’s working because you’re still reading.
And I’ve broken all the rules. Two sentences beginning with ‘and’, seven colloquial lapses into the first person, one random ellipsis… the RSA style guide has gone clean out the window in a deliberate act of maverick abandon. This rather left-field introduction is my opening jab. Maybe this is unsurprising. The idea of ‘winning’ this article is a very masculine approach to take, seeking blunt success, status, power even. There is ostensibly nothing to win here, but masculinity often sees competition and conflict in circumstances where collaboration and community might be found. And like a Lancaster bomber with engine failure, masculinity needs an awful lot of hot air to stay airborne. Of which I am providing plenty, I am well aware.
Enter grime: the hottest musical genre to detonate into the mainstream in recent years and the first major millennial cultural artefact to emerge from the UK this century. For the uninitiated, grime is a highly lyrical genre of electronic music originating from east London in the early 2000s, with a lineage that reaches deep into black British heritage. Characterised by a restlessly electronic audio palette and frenetic, ballistic energy, grime can be read as a soundtrack to the urban experience, inviting listeners to dance along to the gritty realities of harsh, city environments. Now, grime is big news, stepping out of the shadows of its own adolescence with a brooding confidence met with a jittery energy that pulses at 140 beats per minute. Stoked in the post-Thatcherite fires of Blair’s New Labour vision for Britain, grime is a punkish scream of discontent, protest music from society’s margins, throwing disenfranchisement back into the world via pirate airwaves, digital media, festival stages and, now, mainstream channels, in that order. It is black music in every sense of the word, born of urban contexts from a minority group with something to shout about.
But for all its seemingly impenetrable posturing, idiosyncratic energies and spiky abrasions, grime very much plays by the rules, and masculinity is the referee. Grime is stereo confirmation that masculinity remains one of the most successful product launches of the modern age, continuing to fly off the shelves as we approach the 2020s. As a lyrical genre, it unwaveringly promotes those same macho ideals that run through our global community: extroversion, power, control, status and aggression, a reflection of wider paradigms that act like gravity on our core values. In 2017, grime soars on the heavy wings of masculinity.
A case in point is I Win, a song by two of grime’s young forefathers, Lethal Bizzle and Skepta. It is an incendiary celebration of individual success, an anthem of exuberant
bravado, peppered with Skepta’s trademark taunt “Go on then” and Lethal B’s emphatic “POW!” The machismo just leaks through the page. I win. Because the key objective of the masculinity game is to win. But at what cost? Toxic masculinity is something the world has lived to regret in the past and may well again. The Cold War took international posturing and military grandstanding to an almost nuclear level. ‘Developed’ nations across the globe continue to arm up in the name of defence, seeking an impossible invulnerability born of fear. And lessons seem to go unlearned as two men with terrible hair continue to do what men do so badly, so well: trading shoves, pulling faces and dangling matches near unlit fireworks.
Despite deriving from the same source, there are obvious, profound differences between the masculinity politics of grime and the masculinity politics of international military brinkmanship. Jong-un vs Trump is an egocentric, toxic game of ‘I win’ in which both sides are saying “go on then”, whereas Lethal B x Skepta is a point of collaboration in which they both win. This is where grime gets important. Yes, it is full of hot air, but it is full of hot air of the best kind; incendiary, forthright, impassioned, empowered. Grime is the furnace that offers deep warmth. It has a beating heart that pulses audibly, offering vitality. Grime has animated the millennium in a uniquely passionate manner, offering a cultural shake of the shoulders to a generation faced with aggressive consumerism and the detached, distancing relationships of so-called social media.
It is collaborative, communal, creative and collegiate. For all its machismo and competitive conflict, grime represents a fundamentally unified culture that celebrates the tribe as much as it promotes the individual. Think about it. The soundclash (a musical face-off in the reggae-dancehall tradition) might look like audio warfare, but is actually a ballet of musical coordination, each competitor contributing to a shared, joyous experience for the assembled crowd. ‘The cypher’ (a lyrical showcase in which MCs trade bars in an assembled circle) might look like crabs in the bucket, but is actually a synthesis of creative energies. I Win is a song that leads with egocentricity in its title but ironically thrives off the energy of two people. Is this really a case of ‘I win’? Or is ‘we win’ the more appropriate description? This is the crux of the argument: that grime represents a very modern kind of cultural cohesion that supersedes the egocentricity we have gotten so used to.
Which takes us back to politics. In 2017, millennials across the country stepped up to put their cross next to a socialist vision represented by a kind of new, Old Labour, led by veteran backbencher turned frontman Jeremy Corbyn. Part idealism, part protest against an unsatisfactory status quo, we saw the electorate nudge Labour towards a triumphant loss, winning 32 seats and knocking the Conservatives out of their Commons majority. Meanwhile, the youth turnout hit its highest peak since 1992. One political sociologist, Paula Surridge of Bristol University, proposes that increases in turnout were linked more closely to factors of ethnic diversity than an increase in young voters, suggesting a complex relationship between youth and minority ethnic status; both of which are defining factors in grime. Culturally, what is significant here is how grime quickly became the unofficial soundtrack to the Corbyn renaissance. A line-up of prominent grime artists including Jme, Novelist, AJ Tracey and Stormzy came out in open support of Corbyn, encouraging their fans to vote accordingly. There was even a hashtag (that ubiquitous, millennial authentication strip), #Grime4Corbyn, which spawned digital campaigning and a series of events in the real world alike.
When David Cameron said “we’re all in this together” back in 2012, I do not think he imagined how and where this sentiment would be realised: in 21st-century black music from the grimy streets of east London. If nothing else, grime has invited the selfie generation to dance along with anti-establishment energy. This might be what aligns it so comfortably with left-wing sensibilities, echoing the politics of marginalised, disenfranchised groups. It is proving to be not only pervasive, but inclusive, inviting one and all to join the party, pun intended. It looks like we have finally learnt to hug hoodie, if not in the way some Conservatives hoped.
There is an appetite at the moment for counter-dominant, below-the-line politics that we can see embodied in grime, a black British artefact rooted in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora that has been shunned for years but is now recognised as culturally, socially and politically important. The brittle masculinity of ‘serious’ politics is often attributed to the right wing, with small ‘c’ conservatism seen as proper and correct while the liberal left is often derided as being idealistic, antagonistic to order and basically unrealistic. This liberal realm is the yin to the conservative yang, offering wholeness through a necessary softening of hard, masculine, above-the-line attitudes. Fail to embrace the feminine, the non-masculine ‘other’, and you risk ending up like Theresa May on results night, wondering how the attempt to be strong and stable left you broken, shaken and bruised. The prime minister, too distant perhaps from the realities of life below the line, found herself struggling to get a response to her call from above. Political parties rely upon understanding the voting public to win and retain support, a kind of empathetic literacy that support hinges on. And sometimes, when you play the masculinity game too well, you become too brittle to withstand even the tiniest fluctuations in air pressure.
Winds of change
In stories, as in history, elements can emerge from the shadows to provide resolution, where recognition of oppressed groups becomes a catalyst for positive social change. This sits at the heart of the US Civil Rights movement, in which decades of subjugation stemming back to transatlantic slavery evolved into a dream for racial unity, rather than a desire for white annihilation. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter might be the 21st-century iteration of these ideals, seeking the global empowerment of a spectrum of marginalised communities via the exposure of police brutality and structural racism in the US. On this side of the Atlantic, at a time when young black people in the UK are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts and black men remain disproportionately incarcerated overall, grime can be read as a celebration of black empowerment. It is a millennial success story that thrives not due to, but in spite of, its hyper-masculine bent.
As a millennial artefact, grime bristles with contradictions. As a saleable commodity watermarked by entrepreneurship, it plays neatly into neoliberal ideals, despite leaning into a well of socialist values. It is as bound by masculinity as any other product of society at large, but, beyond the noise, is empathetic and communal. Macho posturing turned up to eleven that also operates on the level of social protest music. Less brattish than punk, more grown up, with deeper roots perhaps, grime is able to connect with the mainstream in mature, often endearing ways, be it Lethal B teaching Dame Judi Dench how to rap, Jeremy Corbyn becoming ‘Uncle Jezza’ or Stormzy acting as unofficial laureate in the poignant opening of the Grenfell Tower charity single. It speaks to a generation that wants more from life than digitised distraction.
A generation that has been failed by the structures and promises of above-the-line politics. A generation unable to empower itself according to the old rules. A generation fighting toxic masculinity and engaging with social inequalities, sexism, racism, gender inequality and homophobia as new. Our values are shifting, our politics are changing and maybe our relationship with masculinity, black or otherwise, is getting healthier. For modern liberalism, this might ultimately be the biggest win of all; that disenfranchisement is not terminal, that society can lead with cohesion rather than conflict and that masculinity does not have to end in toxic destruction; dreams we can hopefully all believe in.