Grime4Corbyn: A Brief History of Grime and Politics

Following the rise of the Grime4Corbyn movement, journalists and political commentators have sought to understand why prominent figures of the scene would emphatically support the Labour leader, delivering a multitude of varying, and mostly incorrect conclusions. What commenters have failed to realise is that the scene has always been intrinsically political, albeit the explicitness of this has only truly come to a head in this election.

Originating from the council estates of inner-city London, grime has documented the lives of the black, the poor and the underprivileged from its inception. Its musical roots lie in forms such as jungle and dancehall, whilst drawing on types of rap such as garage and hip-hop. The unifying aspect of these genres is their potential to express a desire for social change, a feat performed in the areas that grime arose from a generation before.

A musical import from Jamaica, Sound-system culture became a central form of resistance for black communities in the racist, nationalistic climate of the mid-20th century. Where one generation utilised music as a form of resistance against overt governmental racism, the latter resisted against covert racism in similarly covert ways. Whilst the capital’s streets of the previous generation saw dub and dancehall provide pluralistic alternatives to the Conservative position of ‘if you want a coloured neighbour vote labour’, the noughties saw grime artists rally against the introduction of form 696, a police order which forced promoters to give information upon the intended audience of their events. The key generational difference is that previously, Labour had provided a genuine alternative to the Conservatives, whilst the early noughties was a political landscape dominated by centrist parties. Grime voiced youthful resistance towards this, taking on an apolitical, anarchic stance. The use of pirate radio showed a refusal both to be quelled by authorities or play by the rules, and with the release of the scene’s seminal album, Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy in da Corner’, these beliefs were distilled crystalline in the opening track ‘Sittin Here’.

‘It’s the same old story, benefit claims and cheques in false names
It’s the same old story, students truant learn the streets fluent

It’s the same old story, strange, there’s no sign of positive change’

Dizzee’s snapshots of inner-city living speak of political dissatisfaction, yet the belief that ‘there’s no sign of positive change’ suggests there is no conceivable alternative, a resignation to such a position. Concerns normally voiced by the right wing such as benefits cheats are juxtaposed with issues of underfunding in communities. There is clearly here a capacity for grime to engage with political issues yet, at this moment, a genuine depiction of the inner-city struggle takes prominence over a sole political angle.

Moving towards the mid 2000’s, the demise of Blairite Labour led to a greater fulfilment of Grime’s political possibility. As argued by Pountain and Robins, the electability of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ derived from his overcoming of the binaries of ‘left and right by decoupling the economic and social assumptions that have been more or less fixed since the French Revolution’. His domestic policy however proved to fail the working class, with Ken Urban summarising that ‘Blairism amounted to little more than Thatcherism lite’. Blair’s utopian multicultural vision was too proved to be a farce, undermined by his false affinity towards the immigrant community, as well as an oil driven war in the Middle-East. The fall of Blair was marked by a rise of more explicit political engagements in grime. Bashy and Bruza’s ‘Fuck da Government’, released in 2006, exclaimed ‘Fuck Tony Blair/ I should grab the prime minister up by his hair/ slap Cherie Blair/ just for the silly clothes that she wears’.

Elsewhere, Ghetts’ ‘Freedom of Speech’ album acted as a refusal to live according to law, the title track ‘Commandments’ comprised of an alternative ten commandments, featuring rules such as ‘lie through your teeth and say you’re a good citizen’. Dizzee Rascal’s claim that ‘I’m a problem for Anthony Blair’ on his opening album proved to foreshadow a rise in resistance to the leader, yet whilst this attitude became more explicit, voicing discontent didn’t lead to an endorsement of an alternative.

This trend continued with grime’s re-emergence in the mainstream. Novelist’s instrumental ‘David Cameron Riddim’ suggested a preoccupation with parliamentary resistance, which was continued in the track ‘Street Politician’. The latter was an attack David Cameron’s ‘big society’ mantra, a repeated sample of the PM stating ‘keeping people safe is the first duty of government’ undercut by bars which reflect the persecution and suppression of black youths.  Similarly, Skepta spits that ‘Me and my G’s ain’t scared of police / We don’t listen to no politician /Everybody on the same mission / We don’t care about your isms and schisms’ on the chart topping ‘Shutdown’, whilst Stormzy has expressed frustration with political disenchantment, saying ‘They say I can’t tweet about the government, why can’t I be free anymore?’. Grime has consistently rallied against the party in power, but not endorsed anyone in opposition, instead painting a nihilistic, apolitical situation. Even Akala, by far the most politically engaged grime artist, has pushed for resistance towards government rather than offer a possibility for reform. Until this election, Akala had never voted, yet his decision to this time shows a genuine change in the political climate and grime’s position towards parliament.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has been backed by numerous grime artists, spawning the  ‘Grime4Corbyn’ movement. Artists including, but not limited to, Novelist, Big Narstie and JME have spoken in support of the Labour leader, and aimed to galvanize their fans to vote for him. For the first time in the scene’s short history, a political figure has arisen who genuinely cares for and represents them. This is true in both a macro sense, with Corbyn fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged from the South African apartheid to protesting the invasion of Iraq, and in a local sense, representing the borough of Islington through honest engagement with minority groups in his community, even going as far as to be a character witness for the rapper Awate when he was on trial.

Grime has always possessed the capacity for political engagement, yet lacked an appropriate figure to galvanise behind, a viable vessel for its vicious energy. Bashy and Bruza’s sentiments in ‘Fuck da Government’ is exactly the same as that which propels the Corbyn movement, the belief that the status quo does not work for you now condensed into the energy of one individual. One who speaks for the underprivileged, the working class and minorities, one which fights ‘for the many, not the few’.

The rise of grime in both the musical and political mainstream is one which all would be foolish to ignore. As a student in Leeds however, this has added weight. With our current education officer, Melz, using it as a method to propel herself into her position with her own version of Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’. In her time in the exec, grime has formed the backbone of much of her work, from the ‘Politics of Grime’ event, to her ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ Ted Talk. Outside this role, her recent release ‘Fuck Theresa May’ shows her belief in grime as a political weapon. Grime has proved to be an effective political weapon, both nationally and on our very own campus, one which is proving evermore difficult to refute.

Reece Parker

Title image: Konbini