The grime revival shows unrest in urban society as a whole. Photo: Flickr/kevin
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The resurgence of grime music exposes a new form of political disillusionment

Young people are still frustrated – but the genre's revival shows a universal urban discontent.

In the words of Paul Mason, it’s (still) kicking off everywhere. This frank diagnosis is applicable at every level of British society’s layer cake. At the top, in the rarefied atmosphere of pre-election Westminster, the incumbent 2.5 party system has been pulled apart. Electorate faith wanes. And after scandals such as the HSBC tax avoidance debacle, in which a government trade minister appointed in 2010 once headed the bank, it's hardly surprising. The message is clear: politicians play by a different set of rules to everyone else.

From the tabloid press to Russell Brand to Thomas Piketty to everyone on Twitter, people are trying to make sense of our times. But beneath these manifestations of discontent, does the melancholy trickle down into Britain’s young cultural subterranea?

The reawakened popularity of grime – a musical genre born out of the deprived boroughs of east London in the early noughties – can offer insight into the mindset of urban young people and their place in the landscape of 21st-century disillusionment.

Grime was conceived shortly after the millennium. The New Labour government had introduced ASBOs and increased CCTV surveillance in its bid to be “tough on the causes of crime”, while elsewhere embracing big business, preaching a third-way, trickle-down economics. This pairing of policy – seen by some as a mix of harsh panopticism with neoliberal overconfidence – resulted in an inequality best symbolised, as Dan Hancox has pointed out, by the juxtaposed architecture of east London: Canary Wharf versus the high-rise council estates of Bow E3.

This claustrophobia incubated the birth of a raw sound. Grime is the reaction of neglected youths peering up at the exclusive, unobtainable futurism of the city from positions of poverty. Doused in anti-establishment slang, typical lyrics relay the gritty aspects of an underclass preoccupied with park bench apathy, gang warfare and drug dealing. It is a middle finger up at disingenuous "hug-a-hoodie" conservatism – a patronising philosophy that in essence still plagues politicians in their failed attempts to connect with the sceptical young voter.

Where in 2002/3 it started as an organic social reaction, grime’s role as a unified voice of the oppressed became gradually less coherent. Despite a slowly accumulating nucleus of underground loyalists, the commercial success of a few artists brought a softened sound to the mainstream. In this respect, some aspects of the genre’s evolution are comparable to post-Olympics east London: gentrified and unrecognisable.

And yet last year there were claims of grime’s return. It isn’t that it went away, but an unprecedented chord of wider media appreciation has now been struck. The sound has spread to Bristol and Birmingham, while a moody instrumental style develops alongside the new generation of angry, punchy MCs. This versatility means music fans at large – the technologically empowered Spotify generation – are listening, not just the teenagers at the back of the nightbus. Unlike ever before, a Shoreditch art gallery is a reasonable venue for a grime show. The squeezed middle, seeking cultural expression, is starting to understand grime’s raw charm.

After all, the coalition government’s policy of austerity has affected multiple levels of the electorate. As the 2011 riots hinted, urban young people in particular are still frustrated. Not interested in voting and thus ignored by election manifesto policy; facing housing crises and zero-hour contracts; locked out of the top city jobs and positions of influence in pop culture unless born into the privately schooled 7 per cent: a voice of expression has to come from somewhere. And this time around, with post-financial crisis awareness, more people – not solely the black working class of east London – share grime’s persistent despair about the unjust trappings of British society.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.