KYIGA WILBERFORCE explores the developments of Grime, considering the effects of its mainstream commercial success on its integrity as a genre.
In today’s London, Grime is king.
From Stormzy’s 2019 Glastonbury headline slot to Skepta’s summoning-of-the-thousands with a single Instagram story, the genre dominates UK youth culture. Emerging from predominantly black, working-class East London youth in the dawn of the twenty-first century, long gone are the days of its satellite circulation through council estates and pirate radio.
However, Grime has an inimical, if not mutually exclusive, relationship with the mainstream. What does it mean when local, cultural success evolve into the global and commercial?
The genre itself is an expression of individual, local and national identity situated within the pluricultural, postcolonial context of twenty-first century London. From battlecry anthems of Harlem Spartans and filmed clashes like Lord of the Mics, to global events like Dizzee Rascal’s 2012 Olympic Ceremony and the casting of Netflix hit Top Boy, Grime is a truly hybrid cultural manifestation. Yet due to the genre’s garnered success in various media, it has become dangerously easy to overlook its innately political nature.
At its core, Grime unpacks the quotidian realities of estate living through narrating the social politics that govern, seemingly harmlessly, who ‘pulls’ girls and who doesn’t, and, at their most extreme, life and death. The twin forces of austerity and gentrification paired with the acute competition to protect ‘me and mine’ create harsh and insular geographies, deeming lyrical territories and postcode boundaries that much fiercer. Through its versatility, Grime has grown adjacent to a perpetually evolving London where cultural and sociolinguistic changes are part of the fabric of the city (see: patois, cockney, pidgin English). The sheer birth of Brazilian Grime, Sino-Grime and French Grime demonstrates that the genre has become a global phenomenon which not only portrays the marginalised voices of London but of communities that share dissent towards a repressive authoritarian system anywhere in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that Grime has re-defined urbane identity.
In parallel, Grime was also born out of necessity. The genre acts as a coping mechanism for working-class London, communicating its fractured existence and continual evacuation. In many ways, Grime is still an allegory of class destiny which allows one to ‘make it out’ of Grime but not to do so as a Grime artist. The irony of the genre going viral through affluent rappers’ Spotify and YouTube success alongside the accompanying Instagram lifestyle flexes while 3.53 million UK households are in energy poverty is tragically ironic. This paradox is heightened through the recently inverted relationship between the UK Government and Grime. From 2008, the Greater London Metropolitan Police introduced infamous Form 696; a risk assessment form which required names, private addresses and phone numbers of all promoters, DJs and MCs alongside a description of the music style and the target audience, with the first iteration demanding details of the audience’s ethnic groups. Even when artists adhered completely, events were shut down so frequently and forcibly that venues ceased hosting Grime artists. In under a decade, this ended hundreds of promising careers for an already marginalised youth.
In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the UK Government commissioned the Report on Race and Ethnic Minorities, which concluded that the country ‘no longer’ had a system rigged against ethnic minorities, citing Dizzee Rascal’s 2012 London Olympic performance as evidence of ‘Open Britain’. This institutional weaponization of Grime to serve the national political agenda has doubled back from denying artists the right to earn a living, instead exploiting singular successes as testimony of a colourblind Britain. The overinflated-future-London is not only incompatible with authentic Grime production as socioeconomic strains and divisions deepen, but also retroactively denies the conditions of Grime’s birth as a resistance to ostracism through its research conclusions. Especially ironic is the global growth of ‘Grime’: a paradoxical non-witnessing of the very social and racial injustices that it exists to contemplate.
However, whilst these exterior structural inequalities warrant criticism, Grime has a deep-rooted, interior obstacle to its progression: its hyper-gendered roles. In Grime, women fit within Luce Irigaray’s tripartite framework of the mother, who is all use value; the virgin, who is all exchange value; and the prostitute, who embodies both use and exchange value. The virgin is brandished when ‘pulled’ and the prostitute is both brandished and abused when ‘screwed’. And the mother, a result of these prior histories, is then eternally powerless and insufficient. But it’s not as simple as good old-fashioned misogyny. The transition between these states forms a parable in Dizzee Rascal’s seminal rap song ‘Jezebel’. In lamenting this vicious cycle, the lyrics situate female subservience as maintained by cartographies of power and fear in the fringes of society:
She was in a family / Now she’s got one of her own / Two little girls / That’s two Jezebels / No longer young but the boys still come / Bottle by her side / She wonder, man / If only she were six years younger, damn
Underlying the lyrical degradation of women stems toxic masculinity bolstered by the hyper-policing of BAME youth, resentment towards their rejection by wider society, and the self-perpetuating blueprint of the hardened, self-sufficient (male) MC. Through volatile enactments of Form 696, the only venues that would host Grime – clubs – were rendered insecure, exacerbating the fleetingness and precarity of romance for both MCs and the audience. With time, the safety that these youths were robbed of has been translated into a limiting, violent vocabulary ascribed to romantic relationships, which has now been internalised by the genre itself.
Despite its legitimate empowerment of marginalised youth, one must ask how much farther Grime can progress given half of the seats at the table, or rather, the booth, are empty.
Featured Image: Dizzee Rascal and producer Wiley, Bethnal Green, London, 2002. Wiley founded the Roll Deep crew, of which Dizzee Rascal was an early member. Image courtesy of David Tonge.