Seventeen days before the general election on 8 June, 20-year-old grime MC Novelist published a short but powerful essay in the Leeds-based youth culture magazine PUSH. “First things first,” the rapper began. “You can’t avoid the system. You’re not avoiding the system if you choose not to vote, you’re still a part of it whether you like it or not.”
It’s not unusual for musicians to try to “get out the vote” in the run-up to an election – though they tend to be older, more established artists (Brian May, Lily Allen, Jay Z); they also tend to be ineffective. Novelist’s argument was, however, far more specific than a generalised plea for youth enfranchisement in politics.
“I’m an advocate for Jeremy Corbyn,” he declared. “It’s not necessarily that I care about Labour, but I know that Corbyn possesses a sense of decency that I rarely see in politicians. I see politics the same way I see everything in life. Whether it’s faith, sport, music or law, you’ve got to study. You have to. If you’re not willing to study, you’re willing to be a victim.”
Novelist wasn’t alone. On 28 May, fast-rising west London rapper A J Tracey featured in an official UK Labour video, citing university fees, the NHS and affordable housing as matters young people could not afford to ignore. (A J Tracey grew up in Ladbroke Grove in west London, and at the start of the film a recently refurbished Grenfell Tower can be seen sparkling against a cloudless sky.)
Elsewhere, the influential MC Jme (real name Jamie Adenuga) sat down with Jeremy Corbyn in an Islington café for a conversation about social cleansing, why people vote Tory and the Labour leader’s unpopularity. A growing number of DJs, artists and MCs – Plastician, Logan Sama, Akala, Saskilla and Big Zuu – voiced their support. It felt like the beginning of a movement. When a website, grime4corbyn.com, was created by a group of activists and media types in London, offering free tickets to grime raves and merchandise to young people who registered to vote, the response, at least in terms of mainstream media coverage, was remarkable. The hashtag #grime4corbyn outperformed #labourmanifesto on the morning of the manifesto’s official release.
Since the EU referendum in June 2016, in which turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds rose to more than 60 per cent from just 43 per cent at the 2015 general election, musicians across all genres have responded to the new political mood (Remain votes correlated starkly according to age). But it was grime above all – a predominantly black British subculture, which emerged from the youth clubs, pirate radio stations and record shops of early-2000s east London to become the UK’s foremost response to American hip hop – that managed to cut through years of deepening political apathy and convince first-time voters to head to the polls.
Final youth turnout in 2017 clocked in at 64 per cent, its highest level since 1992. Paula Surridge, a political sociologist and polling expert at Bristol University, has argued that diversity was the greatest factor driving voter turnout (historically low among BAME groups). Three of the five constituencies with the greatest increase of new voters were in east London – less than a mile from the site of what some regard as the birthplace of grime, the Rhythm Division record shop on Roman Road in Bow.
This alliance between rap and a regenerated Labour Party under Corbyn was neither expected nor planned. It bears little comparison to previous efforts to align parties (the parliamentary kind) with parties (the fun kind), such as the 1980s Red Wedge campaign, in which Billy Bragg and Paul Weller toured the country attempting to convince 18-to-24-year-olds to vote Labour.
The story of how the two sides came together says as much about the changes in the world of music as in the realm of politics. Just three years ago, nobody would have believed that a backbench MP who had spent 30 years doggedly opposing Labour’s drift to the centre would end up leading the party to its largest vote increase since 1945. It was equally unlikely that an anti-system, postcode-centric, DIY music culture discredited by many after its first flush of success around 2004 would end up being – along with left-wing websites such as the Canary and Skwawkbox – that same backbencher’s hype machine.
“Has Theresa May ever been to Aldi?” the rapper Saskilla asked Victoria Derbyshire live on BBC News after the election. “Has she ever been to Lidl in her life? If she can tell me what Lidl looks like from the inside, I’ll listen to what Theresa May has to say.”
The question appeared to speak volumes about the election result. There was a feeling that Corbyn, despite belonging to the same political establishment as the Prime Minister, took the time to understand how people struggled. This perception intensified after the Grenfell Tower disaster. “[May] came with heavy security, nobody was allowed to approach her,” A J Tracey said in a video interview with the Guardian. “And then Corbyn comes down, no security, chats to the mandem. This is why everyone loves him. It seems like he genuinely cares.”
Grime may have backed Corbyn in 2017 but its alignment with Labour – or with any political party – would once have seemed impossible. “You know why grime exists?” the Mercury Prize-winning rapper Skepta asked the journalist Kate Hutchinson before his headline set at this year’s Glastonbury. “Because of the pain they’ve put us through.”
An MC of the generation above Novelist’s, Skepta (who claimed recently to have turned down the offer of an MBE) made his view of the scene’s enthusiasm for electoral politics quite clear: “[It] makes me sick. Everyone was tellin’ everyone, all the youth to ‘vote for my man’ [most notably his brother Jme].” Skepta’s parting shot had a libertarian flavour to it. “They should run theirself,” he said. “Everybody should run theirself.” There’s a touch of “there’s no such thing as society” there, rewritten to acknowledge the harder, bootstrap days of early grime.
Previously, to be a grime producer, DJ or MC, meant being an entrepreneur. It meant you had to hustle. Many point to the white label (as in, no label) pressing of “Eskimo” – by the scene don, Wiley – in 2002, believed to have sold more than 10,000 copies from the boot of the musician’s car at £3 a pop, as the moment when grime broke its banks, reverberating from Bow to the rest of London. The nascent genre didn’t even have a name at the time. “Grimy” is thought to have originated as an adjective tagged on to a breakaway from UK garage that was colder, harsher, humbler than its smooth Miami Beach-inflected predecessor.
Innovation and promotion were essential. There were the homemade DVDs, artist mixtapes, house parties and car-park clashes (in which MCs face off against each other, deploying their latest lyrics). There were music videos screened on the now-defunct Channel U, and freestyles – improvised rapping – broadcast across pirate radio and later on BBC Radio 1Xtra, launched in 2002. Initially, there wasn’t enough of an appetite for unabashedly British rap. Doors had to be broken down and it was Wiley, Jammer, Kano, Giggs and Dizzee Rascal, among others, who opened the way by popularising the new sound.
The minister for digital at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Matthew Hancock, wasn’t entirely wrong when he praised Skepta’s 2016 Mercury win. “He tells a story of his background,” Hancock said, “but the thing that excites me is that he can break through. I don’t like to wallow in poverty…Grime represents modern Britain – the entrepreneurial, go-getting nature.” Hancock didn’t exactly distinguish himself with his knowledge of the genre. After boasting about listening to grime “in the back of the ministerial car” he was unable, when pressed, to name a single track.
“There’s a strong narrative, particularly among black African families, that you’ve got to make your own opportunities,” Jeffrey Boakye, the author of a new book, Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime, told me. “If you don’t, it’s considered your own fault. The welfare state means very little among certain communities.”
One of the few comparable artists to express support for the Conservatives in 2017 was the former So Solid Crew producer Megaman, who claimed a vote for Labour was a vote for “more handouts”.
“I wouldn’t support a lazy Britain over a ‘get your hustle on and let’s be great’,” Megaman said, a thought he followed up with a tweet featuring a small blue heart emoji: “Give the WOMAN some time!”
The convention that you look after yourself first and foremost, and in doing so lift your family and those around you out of poverty, runs deep. Having made it this far, why should someone like Skepta believe that a politician will improve things? Yet to claim there was no society in early 2000s east London would be a misrepresentation. There was a bit more to Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 Woman’s Own interview too. “There’s no such thing as society,” she said, continuing, “there are men and women and there are families…It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
Even at the birth of grime there was a support network. The epochal RWD magazine was established with a £5,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust. Tony Blair’s New Deal for Musicians, which folded in 2009, kept active musicians making music, at least for a time. It may have felt as though society was elsewhere – irrelevant, built by and for someone else – but to paraphrase Mrs T, there were always men (too many) and women (not enough) but most importantly there were crews.
Crews were and remain a central element of rap, garage, hip hop and grime. Roll Deep, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew and Ruff Sqwad were revolving constellations of artists who sustained one another and the scene by developing new talent, organising parties and releases, and refining one another’s skills in the furnaces of often bruising competition.
At the helm of Roll Deep was Wiley, whose patronage of other artists earned him the moniker of “Godfather”. Wiley used the money from his white label successes to fund studio time for both Roll Deep and Ruff Sqwad. You could compare Wiley to a kind of grime welfare state: at a local level he was redistributing opportunity and cash where appropriate; and what’s more, much as the government does, he recouped his spend after people’s situations improved.
Earlier crews were fiercely loyal to their neighbourhoods – but what difference does a postcode make in the age of Spotify? Today crews can build a community via YouTube (with their videos, interviews and Snapchats reproduced on channels such as GRM Daily or Link Up TV). The speed, the numbers and the distances covered can grow exponentially as someone like Stormzy, who seems to navigate this world so effortlessly, has proved. MCs don’t even need to clash. It’s enough for the stars of grime 2.0 to be dissed on Twitter and to whine about it in their lyrics, which must seem bewildering to the elder statesmen of the scene. “You’re not a gangster, you’re just the internet version,” sniffs Giggs on his latest album, Landlord.
In March 2014, Tottenham MC Meridian Dan released “German Whip”, a single that charted at No 13 and landed with a bang following a period during which many MCs seemed to have adopted a glitzier, lusher, electronic sound and grime seemed to lose something of its original, well, grimeyness. This is the “Gucci” era that Skepta disavows in the lo-fi, nostalgic “That’s Not Me”, his first certifiable hit after two major label releases – a return to grime’s first principles.
Mentioning a singles-chart position in 2017 might seem ludicrous – even in 2014 it was an anachronism – but noting the millions of views “German Whip” generated on YouTube is not. This was a tumultuous time for music as a whole, and a catastrophic one for independent labels and DIY scenes across the UK. Musicians needed to find new ways to sustain a living after the internet killed record sales as a business model.
In 2017, buzz for a new track or artist or sound develops online. That excitement may translate into sponsorship deals, sell-out raves, trips overseas and publishing royalties – or it may not. The old ways of doing things have become mostly redundant and, as unlikely as it might sound, this is where Jeremy Corbyn steps in.
“After years of neoliberal flimsiness, today we’re all hipsters,” the author Jeffrey Boakye tells me. “And what do hipsters crave more than anything else? Authenticity. In that sense Jeremy Corbyn, like grime, is offering something that feels kinda grungy, analogue and real. He’s like political vinyl.”
It’s not that grime was apolitical. Dizzee Rascal’s claim “If you want beef, you’ll get a fair share…I’m a problem for Anthony Blair” on Boy in Da Corner (2003), the first grime album to make the top ten, was a statement of political intent. There was opposition to specific policies such as Stop and Search (on songs by the Mitchell Brothers and Jme), or Form 696, which has been used to shut down raves for years on spurious grounds. (To give him his due, Matt Hancock wrote to the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, last year questioning the validity of the form, which requires promoters to provide personal information on every performer appearing, as well as the style of music played.)
A musical subculture that offers commentary on poverty, racism and violence in the inner cities is by its very nature political. In 2011, shortly before the anthemic “POW!” became the soundtrack to the anti-fee protests in Parliament Square, the MC responsible for the track, Lethal Bizzle, told the journalist Dan Hancox: “We’re the real prime ministers of this country.” It’s a sentiment with something in it of Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” – and one that in 2017 seems closer than ever to becoming true, in no small part thanks to grime’s first mega celebrity, a 24-year-old from Croydon named Michael Omari (better known as Stormzy), whose debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, became grime’s first No 1.
Mandem of the people: Jme in a T-shirt designed by artist Ryan Hawaii. Photo: Olivia Rose
When Sarah Jones, the newly elected MP for Croydon Central, asked young people in her constituency why they voted Labour, they pointed her to Snapchat. They said they’d seen a photograph of Corbyn protesting against apartheid (at the South African Embassy in London in 1984), an image mentioned by Stormzy in an interview in 2016: “I feel like he gets what the ethnic minorities are going through and the homeless and the working class,” he said.
During the election campaign, the marginal constituency was flooded with flyers and posters bearing the rapper’s image and the message “the Tories hold Croydon by 165 votes (that’s literally it) – even your dad’s got more Facebook friends”. Stormzy had not endorsed this and the leaflets were eventually removed from circulation – yet Labour won the seat comfortably.
Grime backed Labour for the same reasons reluctant or non-voters across the country came out for Corbyn. By stubbornly refusing to adapt, he has become special. The Labour Party welcomed support from grime for the same reason that Tottenham Hotspur (A J Tracey), Adidas (Stormzy, Nadia Rose), Premier Inn (Tinchy Stryder) and Sports Direct (Skepta) have done: it’s a lifestyle that can flog trainers as well as sway voters.
Stories from the street present a narrative of marginalised lives and communal struggle in a head-spinning age where meanings and values can change so rapidly. Even the harder edge of UK rap is on board. LD, masked frontman of the Brixton crew 67, added a “shouts out Jeremy Corbyn” to the end of a recent interview with Noisey, the Vice Media music channel. “You should’ve won, man,” he lamented.
Whether so much public support for a single politician is evidence of naivety, a rebellion against the attitudes of the previous generation, or the new confidence of the digital native, remains to be seen. I contacted a number of MCs for this piece but most said they didn’t feel like talking about politics for a while. Who can blame them? Many felt burned by the response to their partisanship before 8 June, most obviously Jme, who was smeared by the Daily Mail and accused of racism, misogyny and even (gasp) militant republicanism.
Jme seemed to back away from his actions in the weeks that followed. He wrote a long apology “to everybody angry at me for getting the youth involved in politics”. There will always be a degree of risk for musicians who reveal the less slick, less ambiguous aspects of their personality. Some people will be alienated. Some will disagree. Grime and Corbyn created a near perfect storm in 2017, but the conditions were ripe, and there’s no guarantee it will happen again.
All the same, it might. There was one reply to Jme’s apology I particularly liked. It came from @Shecia: “The older generation is pissed because we’re starting a movement. BLOCK THEM.”
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue