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.