By Tzeitel Degiovanni
Dave the rapper’s stunningly poignant performance of his single Black at the 2020 BRIT Awards last week exposed something deeply concerning about pockets of the British population. The 300+ Ofcom complaints received following Stormzy and Dave’s performances reveals a sad truth – you can sing for us, you can dance for us, you can win awards for us…but don’t you dare criticise us.
What the comments indicate, and what hundreds of angry tweets exploding on twitter that day highlight, is that many white Britons refuse to accept the voices, experiences and struggles of non-white bodies. And what they absolutely refuse to accept or acknowledge is how their privilege allows them to do that. White people want their music, their performance, their style… but they don’t want their voices, their experiences or their politics.
Take the example of this young white British man on Twitter. About the performance, he wrote
Indeed, what did happen to UK rap/grime scene? Clearly one thing is that its roots in jungle, dancehall and hip-hop, all of which developed out of Black British, Caribbean and African-American communities respectively, have been erased by many listeners. I thought about how privileged this young man was, to request these successful Black rappers ‘keep politics out of music’. Rappers who were born and raised in London boroughs like Croydon and Brixton to Ghanaian and Nigerian parents, their lives shaped and influenced by their experiences as young Black men in communities directly affected by problematic race relations for decades.
White listeners often express feeling ‘hard’ when listening to grime. It is often angry, emotionally loaded and stirring. To let you in on a secret, this isn’t because Black people are naturally angry. Paul Gilroy, British historian and founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism at University College London, articulates how Black music possesses an inner philosophical doctrine and morality that confronts power with truth, helping to ‘develop black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness’ and creating new forms of political agency. Grime has its own similar inner philosophy and ethics encoded within its aggressive sound.
Emerging in the council estates of East London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney in the early 2000s, where 42% of the Capital’s social housing was located, the birth of this genre coincided with the New Labour’s plans to regenerate the city. Done by developing new residential apartments, intensifying the city’s CCTV surveillance and criminalising non-criminal behaviours (i.e. ‘hanging around’) through punitive measures like ASBOs and police dispersal powers, black working-class neighbourhoods were exponentially targeted. The effects of these were crippling, felt for decades to come.
Between April 2018 and March 2019, you were over 9 times more likely to be subjected to stop and search as a Black individual than if you were white; with the 3 Black ethnic groups having the highest rates of stop and search out of all 16 individual ethnic groups. Figures released by the Home Office showed that 12% of incidents involving the use of force by police were against Black people, who make up only 3.3% of the population. A disproportionately high stop and search rate, followed by a disproportionately high violence rate, and it doesn’t take too long to piece together the dangerous and racist reality. To add insult to injury, austerity measures over the past 15 years have left these same communities in destitution and despair, with Theresa May’s cuts on public services in housing, education and healthcare impacting the lives of grime’s artists and listeners the most. Over these two decades, from 2002 to 2018, no more than 6.6% of Black Britons have made it into further education (2017/18), compared with a white British rate that has never dropped below 76.8%.
This reality is important for understanding grime musically, politically, and as a youth culture. Having been described as a ‘sound of disillusionment, resentment and despair’ (Collins), its lyrics are inscribed with the reality of young Black working-class life in Britain, shaped by intersecting forms of social exclusion in education, housing, employment opportunities and racist policing. This is fundamentally what the young man on Twitter missed when he complained that his easy listening experience was interrupted by politics, and something that non-Black people need to be aware of when listening to rap and grime for pleasure. When blasting it through a gym set or listening to the Top Boy soundtrack on the commute to work, we simply cannot complain when the Black artists we are listening to, in a genre they created, start talking about their Black experiences. We enjoy these sounds whilst being totally unaffected by their political reality, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have one. Histories of origin are histories of power, and in colonialist tradition, we see people continue to take what they want from other cultures and complain about and erase what they don’t. As Dave aptly raps in Black, “You don’t know the truth about your race cos they[re] erasing it…”.
For its main practitioners (marginalised young Black men) grime is a liminal space where they can express their frustration and growing pains of impoverished adolescence with limited resources and create music that represents their lives – played out in youth clubs, on street corners and around council estates. This is why artists like Dave passionately describe life under a Tory regime in their music; narrating harrowing stories of his mother, an NHS worker “struggling to get by”, with May’s policies having “brought the heart of the nation to its knees”. Workers are “underpaid, understaffed, overworked and overseen by people who can’t ever understand how it feels to live life like you and me”. Black British rappers, and especially Black British rap and grime artists, simply do not have the luxury to not be political. And for them to use their elevated platforms in the UK music industry to shed light on issues that have shaped their own lives, as well as the lives of their communities and those who still face socio-economic barriers, is something that should be applauded.
Anyone who cannot see this, or who doesn’t want to, is wrapped up in a privilege so white it is blinding. A privilege rooted in a position unaffected by and unfeeling towards racial inequality or social injustice, both personally and communally. To demand these artists not draw from their own experiences, not to make music about their communities and not to use their platform to unsilence the silenced experiences of racism in Britain is one of the grossest privilege and disillusionment. And to claim that they themselves are being racist, like the 300+ Ofcom complainers did on the night of the BRIT awards, demonstrates the urgency of the vast re-education needed in Britain if it is ever going to claim openness and inclusivity, or that it is ‘the least racist country’ in the world. As Dave said, the least racist is still racist, and that’s still a problem.