The sounds of the outsider

Image Description: Stormzy performing at a festival, with a dark background and red white lights around him. 

Much of British culture can be simmered down to the constantly brewing tensions  between the elite and the outsiders that refuse to commit the sin of deference. Even though everything I write seems to conclude with me despairing at the fact I live in this country, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite all its shortcomings, this country has given me so many things that stitch me together; UK rap music, and more specifically grime is by far one of the most salient. Being a person of colour from London, when I’m in Oxford, listening to music that is distinctly tinged with the markings of London Town makes me feel more at home than anything else could. British music has never taken itself too seriously, and it is this tongue in cheek quality that makes it so British. For diasporic communities, the fusion of our own culture into the British music scene is a saving grace. For our generation and especially the diasporas of the cities of this country, grime is the genre keeping us afloat. It rips everything it opposes to shreds, and subsequently patches it back up with the words and symbols of the people who raised. They also built us to question systems that themselves are built to hate us. 

The grime genre was conceived in the early 2000s, and in recent years has gained mainstream attention Many of my peers would say that grime is the music that has raised them. As grime artists keep topping the music charts, the political nature of the genre becomes more and more salient, and now runs through the bloodstreams of 20 years old up and down the country. When Stormzy said ‘Fuck the government and fuck Boris’ in Vossi Bop he invoked a political fire in millions. This single lyric is branded in the brains and hearts of people up and down the country, but for people of colour from city settings where it is a harsh truth that the Tory government puts them last, it was not just a brazen moment in the club but a resolution to win the war against the elite. When Skepta told Chip in a heartfelt phone call ‘I’m too black to be up there, you see what I’m saying fam?’ in Corn on the Curb he crudely put the sentiment of many black and brown people front and centre in one of the songs from his acclaimed album Konnichiwa. Telling us ‘the MBE got rejected’ was Skepta’s assurance that the sudden acceptance of UK rap means very little when it is clear that it is  still seen as a niche and transient genre – or even phase. The entire seven minute track Question Time by Dave is an incredible ode to the broken politics of the UK. Without the wit and the tempo of these songs, it would be difficult to really cut to the heart of why British politics is so broken, but at least we know if we can’t govern correctly, we can make music about it.

For diasporic communities, the fusion of our own culture into the British music scene is a saving grace.

Even more poignant than the confident criticism of grime and rap, is the unashamed fusion of diaspora culture and language in the lyrics. The lyrics aren’t necessarily always political, but the references to Asian and African languages make it clear that this music is for those who cannot find comfort in the traditional British musical canon. From Dave’s reference to the Gujarati language to D-Block Europe’s use of Somali words, these genres have always acknowledged the existence of cultures other than British and languages other than English. In London alone, 300 different languages are spoken. More than making space for those who are not represented in other genres, this merging of languages is frankly just a reality for millions of British citizens. Instead of diminishing someone’s bilingualism because it doesn’t include traditionally respected languages like French or Latin, these songs rightfully make people proud of their existence.  It would miss the point of grime and rap to reduce it to its lyricism. Beats influenced by dancehall, reggae, and South Asian instrumentals are common and are as important as the lyrics. Paying homage to the music of immigrants, and the development of genres through fusion is politically charged. Knowing its environment and making music for the people who actually listen is what creates the unapologetic style of UK rap. 

Part of me resents the explosion of UK rap into the charts, and it is purely for selfish reasons. Tinny recordings blaring from Blackberrys snuck into those tiny Nike bags is the soundtrack to my teenage years. Music GCSE lessons were filled with producing beats and writing lyrics instead of trying to understand the circle of fifths. My sixth form holds a ‘Culture Day’ each year, where the two year groups basically have parties in the sports hall during lunch. A 45 minute long affair of coming together, representing the countries we hold dear to our heart and revelling in the music of our city. Coming to university and realising kids with no attachment to any of the themes in this music use it as a strange rebellion against the nice shiny lives they lead has left  a permanent bitter taste in my mouth. This music works because it’s made for the people who influence it- there is a cyclical magic to it that is threatened by a tame acceptance. But if this music has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing better than being a thorn in the side of the establishment. 


Image Credit: Exit Festival via Creative Commons