Biblical Verse: How Grime And Christianity Intersect

As a teenager, Denzil Bell felt that his religious beliefs and his love of grime were incompatible – until he heard the lyrics of Ghetts and Stormzy. As Ghetts releases a new LP, Bell explores the relationship between Christianity and grime

For years now, grime and religion have both been important to me, but I’ve always had an internal argument as to whether the two are compatible. As a youth going to church every Sunday, I was taught that the music of the world is sinful and that hymns are all a Christian should listen to. When I got older and became a massive fan of grime, this became hard to reconcile, yet as I navigated my way through the scene, I found that many others involved had a similar upbringing to my own.

This same dichotomy is palpable on Ghetts’ new record, Conflict Of Interest; where we see him battling between himself (J.Clarke) and his alter egos, Ghetto and Ghetts, almost like there is an angel and demon on his shoulders.

On ‘Proud Family’, the warmer side, J.Clarke shines through, whereas on the phosphorous, Stormzy-assisted ‘Skengman’, Ghetto returns. On the otherworldly ‘Mozambique’ with Jaykae and Moonchild Sanelly, Ghetts emerges once again, perfectly balanced between the ferocious Ghetto and the family man, J.Clarke.

This conflict of interest is something I’ve also felt. For my whole life, I had believed that the music I loved couldn’t be mixed with my religion. However, in 2007, Ghetts changed the game with the release of Ghetto Gospel, a project which perfectly fused grime and faith. I was 13, and this tape came out at a time when I needed it the most. Listening to it, I could tell he also grew up in a similar war to myself. "Man’s from a Christian background and first and foremost, the original Ghetto Gospel had the spiritual side with songs like ‘Blessed With A Gift’, ‘Closest Thing To Heaven’ and ‘Touch The Sky’," says Ghetts, adding that "being true to the title, the ‘Gospel’ part stands for truth and the ‘Ghetto’ part is about the streets."

I was at a point where I was really contemplating whether grime and religion were at odds with each other but the ‘ghetto gospel’ concept really resonated with me. I realised that the two didn’t have to be so far apart, after all. The gospel is all about the truth and we can see parallels with the scene here – the reason grime has lasted so long is because it is a scene that has allowed UK Black youths to speak the honest truth about their often harsh realities.

It’s not just Ghetts who has a strong faith, of course. "My dad was a Christian and my mum was Muslim but she converted to Christianity when she met my dad," Grime MC Fusion tells me. "So when I was growing up, she was committed to church and we would go every Sunday. But you know what, I wasn’t really a big fan of church, it was my mum pushing us all to go. I went until I was like 14 or 15 and then after that, I started doing my own thing. But either way, I’ve always stood well with my faith and my belief in God has always been strong."

This constant also holds up for fellow writers in the industry. Jeffrey Boakye (author of Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials And The Meaning Of Grime) was also brought up in a religious household. "I was raised Catholic and was deep in the game," he says. "Altar boy, Eucharistic minister, catholic schools, church all the time, church groups (hold tight the Legion of Mary), community work, all of that. I regularly did the rosary and learned how to pray from an early age. Now, not so much. I took a lot from my religious upbringing about humility, the power of reflection and how stories can teach us lessons. But I’m not what you would call a practicing Catholic now."

Boakye agrees that grime and faith don’t have to be in opposition. "Grime is not anti-religious," he says. "It’s a reflection of certain socio-cultural contexts and, tonally, an outlet for certain moods and feelings. Yes, there is aggression and anger and frustration and violence, but these might be offshoots of passion. And passion is a very religious concept.

"Lots of ‘street’ music is preoccupied with authenticity and keeping it real, which actually lends itself to belief in God. I think it’s no accident that ‘pagan’ is the ultimate pejorative in modern street parlance. It means ‘non-believer’, someone who goes against God. A lot of grime MCs are crafting personas that are authentic and credible, which means believing in righteousness. Grime lives in this sphere, I think. Hence why a lot of MCs talk about walking with God, having the Lord on their side, praying, rejecting Satan, etc. All things you can do while starting parties and talking about road activity."

Boakye believes "there’s an intensity to religious faith that matches perfectly with the intensity of devoting oneself to any culture or scene," citing the Skepta quote: ‘this ain’t a culture, it’s my religion’. Following a culture is like being a devotee or a disciple, Boakye tells me. "You need to study and believe and humble yourself to a higher power. When you think about it like that, and add the history of religious belief within Black communities, grime and religion are a good fit."

Ghetts goes even further with this argument. "My ability to MC is a gift from God," he says. "A wise man said to me: ‘you’re a writer, your power is to paint pictures’, he said to me, ‘you’re a prophet’ and I laughed and said you’re a mad man, why would you think that. ‘In Bible times who do you think the people were writing the books of the Old and New Testament? Now you are the writer who is depicting the times and what is happening now." To further solidify his point, Ghetts reaches for a Bible verse: "There’s a text in the Bible that says, ‘Come as you are’ – God knows if you are coming from a genuine place."

We must also look to grime’s origins to truly understand it. Grime is heavily influenced by Jamaican culture. If you watch old soundsystem clashes, you can see this huge influence on the grime raves, such as Wiley’s Eskimo Dance. When we go even deeper and analyse grime, for me, it’s also an evolution of African culture; if we go back in history, people of the African diaspora have always had strong spiritual belief systems within their societies. As well as this, music and oral communication runs deep across the diaspora, going back to ancient times. In the UK, while wider church attendance is in decline, figures are still holding up or even increasing among the Black British community – the fact that grime and religion have been mixed by artists like Ghetts and then a decade later with Stormzy’s Gang Signs And Prayer, is not a surprise.

Like Ghetts, Stormzy is a grime artist who wears his faith on his sleeve and his number one album Gang Signs And Prayer epitomises how grime and religion can stand hand in hand, with the musician including grime anthems like ‘Shut Up’, but then also featuring ‘Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2’, where Stormzy sings, "Lord I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fixed me, I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me."

Here, Stormzy talks about grace (unmerited favour from God), a concept which is central to Christian teaching and something I was used to hearing at Church as I grew up. Stormzy also had a similar upbringing to myself. When he accepted the Sandford St Martin’s Trust award in 2020, for promoting Christianity and spirituality, he said, "God’s alway been a very integral part of my life, my mum used to take me to church as a child and when I started growing up and I got to know him for myself. God is the literal foundation, he’s everything. Even in my darkest times, God has been there."

It’s fascinating to see a chart-topping artist who came from the streets effectively using his position to preach. Ghetts also does the same thing and recently said in an interview, "I’m on a mad spiritual journey," adding "God has been good to me."

Like Ghetts’ album, Conflict Of Interest, Christianity and grime co-exist, sometimes intertwining, sometimes at odds with one another. Grime is often characterised as an anti-establishment culture, whereas many of the pillars of religion are steeped in rigid tradition. But, to bring in another spiritual belief, perhaps in this we see the delicate balance of yin and yang, and a struggle to find the balance. As for myself, I feel I’ll eventually find this sweet holy spot between my love for the grimiest synths and the most uplifting hymns – keeping the faith, with grime and God alike.

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