At the Brit Awards grime artist Stormzy won both best British male and best British album. But it was his acutely insurgent performance at the close of the live ITV broadcast that really got people talking.
Amid the usual glitz, glamour and perfect lifestyles portrayed at such events, Stormzy delivered a powerful and passionate verse that built up to a direct challenge to Theresa May:
Yo Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?
What, you thought we just forgot about Grenfell?
You criminals and you’ve got the cheek to call us savages
You should do some jail time, you should pay some damages
This is not the first time Stormzy has exploited a media platform to state his position on the Grenfell disaster, which claimed the lives of 71 people in June 2017. At Glastonbury festival last summer he criticised the May government’s response to the tragedy, while he also featured on the Grenfell charity single.
Grime music provides a means for the younger black generation to deliver first-hand experiences and express their anger toward the disparity of social and political structures. The MCs of grime have developed a strong vocal position and style of their own over the past 15 years.
Since the early noughties, the genre has matured into the UK’s principal expression of rap culture, but its cultural roots are firmly anchored in the urban sounds of British hip hop pioneers prolific at the turn of the 1990s. Artists such as London Posse, Katch 22, and MC Mell‘O’ embraced their own accents and vernacular, and developed the first true sounds of UK hip hop coupled with a strong socio-political agenda.
These artists drew upon African and African-Caribbean heritage and the context of living in Britain, sonically inspired by reggae sound systems and the power of American hip hop. Tracks including London Posse’s Live Like the Other Half Do, Katch 22’s Final Judgement, and Subtraction by MC Mell’O’ carried messages of awareness about one’s cultural history and identity, and the blatant racism and police harassment regularly suffered by black British people.
Another day of racist police brutality
And this reality is changed my personality
This voice of revolutionary UK hip hop may have remained too underground and marginal to permeate mainstream media and have much impact on broader society, but it has had a lasting influence on the grime MCs of today.
MCs control their own message
Grime is immediate – and it is its closeness to its audience that supports the dissemination of the new voices of working-class black culture. An artist’s output can be delivered, captured and presented within minutes to an almost limitless audience – and established artists such as Skepta, Wiley and Fekky draw literally millions of YouTube views and Soundcloud hits.
By embracing the speed and impact of social media, music production and everyday sonic technologies, grime MCs take a lead from Afrofuturist thought to frame their position within the socio-political context of present-day Britain.
The big grime artists are paving the way for more MCs to convey their own message, often anchored in the veracity of working-class life. The fluid delivery of Octavian, and emerging “UK drill” stars such as K-Trap and Zone 2, extend much of the vexations expressed by their predecessors, and are also gaining huge hits online.
It is here these new voices have subverted the tradition of media representation. Grime extends past the metropolis – and MCs in the north such as Afghan Dan epitomise the working-class nature of this genre. During a Noisey YouTube special on Blackpool’s grime scene, and on the question of broader talent in the town, Afghan Dan replies: “That’s survival. That’s what you see there. You know, families are devastated by drugs and drink. That’s what happens.” With more than 5m views, the video shows the messages of the marginal can no longer be ignored by mainstream.
Through its success as a music and its modes of delivery, the narratives carried by grime artists are bringing the issues directly to a much broader audience. In turn, this is contributing to a seismic shift in public discourse, illustrated by the positive reaction to Stormzy’s Grenfell comments.
This is no longer about how grime artists might be heard by the British media – we’re past that point. Now it is about how artists, society and the media ensure that the arrival of these new voices is maintained and developed to make real social and political change.