In the autumn of 2017, just a few months after Grenfell Tower had gone up in flames and Labour had robbed Theresa May of her majority, the rapper Dave (real name David Orobosa Michael Omoregie) released “Question Time” – a lyrical polemic on Britain’s political class and its global allies whose targets ranged from arms sales to Saudi Arabia to Brexit, Donald Trump and underfunding of the NHS.
Like most rap, the song is partly rooted in his personal experience. Dave, who was 19 when “Question Time” came out, had already experienced a lot. He was born in Brixton, south London, to Nigerian parents. His father was absent; his mother was a nurse. When Dave was 14 his older brother, Chris, was one of 20 teenagers successfully prosecuted for the murder of a 15-year-old under the “joint enterprise” rule, a problematic legal doctrine that holds a group collectively responsible for a crime even if they didn’t all commit it. A few years after that, his brother Ben went to jail for robbery.
“Everyone who knew about that cladding,” he raps of Grenfell, “Should really be going prison under rule of joint enterprise/But if it ain’t a little kid with a knife/I bet that judge is going easy when he’s giving him time.”
“Rappers,” explains the music writer Aniefiok Ekpoudom in his new book Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain, “are not vessels or voices for communities by default. These are titles earned by trust and faith, by those who reckon with their responsibility… to bring the frustrations their people have held within… to the public ear.”
But Dave’s cohort had more frustrations than most and more ways to reach the public’s eyes and ears. He is part of a UK demographic, born in the Nineties, that embraced grime – a genre of British rap, drawing on dancehall, garage and hip hop – and was uniquely positioned to take it mainstream. They came of age during a period of technological revolution, economic collapse and political resistance – an era that does not track with the broad-brush millennial or Gen Z groupings. Offering precise dates for a demographic of my own imagining is arbitrary and perilous: political consciousness does not conform to a calendar. Yet for argument’s sake it would encompass those born between 1991 and 1999, including those who started secondary school or were still a teenager in 2010 when the Tory-led coalition took power and austerity started.
Members of this cohort were born before most people had cellphones, the eldest started secondary school before Facebook existed, the youngest started the same year as Instagram was launched. Smartphones made their entrance in between. All spent their conscious childhood under a Labour government in a world where Stephen Lawrence was always dead. None of them can remember Nelson Mandela being in jail; all of them can remember Barack Obama being elected, even if they weren’t paying that much attention. All came of age when their youth clubs were closed down, the education maintenance allowance was scrapped and university tuition fees were hiked. (This is not simply a story of Tory austerity: it was Tony Blair who introduced tuition fees and Labour’s Browne Review that resulted in the increase to £9,000 a year in 2010).
They have now entered early adulthood not only with heavier debts, higher rents and less job security than their parents did, but are having less sex and consuming fewer drugs and less alcohol too.
This is the part of the population that is twice as likely to vote Labour than Tory at the next election and three times more likely to want the UK to support Palestine than Israel now. It includes among its number Novara contributing editor Ash Sarkar, Scottish Nationalist MP Mhairi Black, Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake, and the Labour MPs Nadia Whittome (once the youngest MP, or “baby of the House”) and Zarah Sultana, who are both members of the party’s Socialist Campaign Group.
The relationship between people and the economic and political circumstances in which they were raised is of course contextual not causal. Our consciousness is partly shaped by events, not wholly determined by them. I was born in the same year (1969) as James Cleverly, Sajid Javid and Ed Miliband: there’s little you could find that we all agree on. But while there may be many from Dave’s cohort who are not left-wing (and many on the left who are not in that cohort), it’s a demographic grouplet that certainly skews left and it is from its ranks that the rappers who broadened grime’s appeal, so that it could headline Glastonbury and dominate the Brits, were drawn.
“Every era has a handful of these people, young men and women whose vocalisations of their life experiences, whose heritage and perspective strike a note with the masses raised in the communities they come from,” writes Ekpoudom.
In this engaging, erudite, sweeping social history of grime in Britain, Ekpoudom focuses on three regions: south London, South Wales and the Midlands. He takes us to the unfashionable places – Neath, Croydon, Walsall – that created these fashionable sounds. He documents a mostly working-class, male, minoritised experience raised in the shadow of Britain’s industrial collapse that weaves their parents’ migrant identities – Caribbean, African, Greek – into the racially, ethnically and stylistically hybrid fabric of the music scene to create a uniquely and determinedly British genre. “UK rap and grime are contemporary pieces of [a] wider music legacy that stretches back over a period of 70 years to the earliest British-Caribbean sound-system culture,” writes Ekpoudom. “They are the products of these older genres, products of reggae and 2-tone, jungle and garage, as well as American hip hop.”
We see artists go in and out of prisons and emergency rooms and then, mostly, into early adulthood, taking jobs in Apple stores and call centres selling car insurance and emergency repair cover as they struggle to make it. We see the thrill, abandon and adulation that comes with breaking through curdle into drudgery and fatigue as they negotiate the professional demands of their success. We witness the private frailty behind the public macho personae as they lose loved ones, most to natural causes but some to violence, and create loved ones, as children arrive, channelling their sense of responsibility.
The writing is sublime. “At its essence MC culture is an act of narration,” he writes. “A history of a city, a town, a country now documented and made permanent, cave paintings that linger in the ether reminding us that on this land, in this time, a community once stood.”
I first stumbled on the notion that this particular cohort had a very particular experience after interviewing Stormzy (real name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr) for GQ in 2019, shortly before the last election. (The previous summer he performed in a Union Jack stab vest at Glastonbury, becoming the festival’s first black solo British headliner.) A vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Stormzy had branded Theresa May an untrustworthy “paigon” from an award stage; pledged £10m to black causes during Black Lives Matter protests, some of which he attended; addressed the march calling for justice for Chris Kaba, the 24-year-old unarmed black man shot dead by the police in south London in 2022; and posted his support for Palestinians on his Instagram page.
Allegiances like this don’t just fall from a clear blue sky and land on the black working class in south London. I asked him where he got his politics from. He didn’t really know. As with Dave, Stormzy’s mother grafted for her family while his father was absent. It was only when I realised he was born in 1993 that it became clear the political and economic period in which he was raised would have provided plenty of political education. He would have been 15 when bankers crashed the economy; 17 when the Tory-led coalition introduced austerity; 18 when riots swept the UK and protest swept the Arab world, Occupy Wall Street spread across the globe and Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. “He could not avoid it,” I wrote at the time. “His intervention is authentic. This is not the story of a musician who is getting into politics but politics coming out of a musician.” From then I kept looking out to see if my theory about the politics of Stormzy’s cohort tracked (just as I kept looking when I realised that the name Gary peaked in 1964 and that almost everyone alive with that name is, like me, 50 or older). Broadly speaking, it has – and not just in music.
Following the Euro 2020 final, when England lost to Italy in a penalty shootout, Marcus Rashford, born in 1997, issued a statement after a torrent of racist abuse rained down on him and other black players for missing their penalties. Rashford had already forced a government turnaround on providing free school meals to children during summer holidays and lockdown. He apologised for missing his penalty but concluded by saying: “I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from. I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, south Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that.”
It was such an audacious, declarative, uncompromising statement it almost moved me to tears. For all the Spike Lee I’d watched, demonstrations I’d been on and Malcolm X I’d read by the time I was 23, I would never have had the self-confidence to do that. Thanks to Ekpoudom’s book, I am developing a clearer idea of just why that is.
Gary Younge is a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. “Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain” by Aniefiok Ekpoudom is published by Faber & Faber. Buy the book
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State