What Kind Of Party Doesn’t Have A DJ? On Politics & Grime

Grime's enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn has been one of the oddest moments of an already strange general election campaign. But, argues Jeffrey Boakye, perhaps the two worlds of politics and the music of London's streets aren't so different after all

I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve written that grime is inherently political. The soundtrack to disaffection. A punkish scream of discontent. A culture that, simply by existing, challenges social structures that disempower marginalised youth in urban environments. There’s something about grime’s anti-establishment militancy and refusal to adhere to social codes of decorum that makes it, perhaps essentially, a powerful genre of protest music.

We’ve seen this up close in Lethal B’s anthemic ‘Pow!’, a song that detonated into the charts back in 2004 and continues to reverberate in Grime’s collective consciousness. Tales of its ability to combust into actual civil unrest have reached almost mythical status, not to mention the fact that its banned-from-the-dancefloor notoriety turned it into the soundtrack of student protest in 2010 (on the day the tuition fees bill was passed), when students facing an austerity-dipped future started firing it out of speakers like the audio equivalent of a Molotov cocktail.

Dig a little deeper and moments of explicit politicising in Grime come floating readily to the surface. Be it Dizzee Rascal declaring himself to be a problem for Anthony Blair (‘Hold Ya Mouf’), Skepta warning Boris Johnson he’s lucky he made it rapping (‘Castles’), or Jammz bemoaning our Conservative leaders (‘It’s A London Thing’), there’s a definite vein of political finger pointing in Grime’s history.

Since the noughties hit its teens, the rise of social media has offered an even broader platform for artists to dive tweet-first into the political deep end, as we’ve seen in JME’s badman campaign to encourage new voters to register, or the fact that AJ Tracey is telling people to vote Labour and getting more retweets than seasoned political analysts, or that one time when Stormzy called Zac Goldsmith "a fucking areshole" on twitter in the lead-in to the 2015 election for London Mayor. Even traditional print media (from when we used to print news articles on this weird bendy wood called ‘paper’) has had its politically grimy moments in the past, including but not limited to Lethal B telling David Cameron that grime MCs are ‘the real prime ministers of this country’ (The Guardian, 2011).

And it goes both ways. In an important sense, party politics is inherently grimy. Characterised by bravado and machismo, it puts crews (parties) in direct opposition in constant displays of pugilism, asking individuals to rep their squad and slew the haters. There’s a brutal competitive conflict to politics that perfectly echoes the kill or be killed energy of the clash, while simultaneously drawing on the collaborative energy of the cypher. If you can win over the crowd (voters), you get rewarded with a reload, (another term in government). The House Of Commons is a public display of wit and lyrical dexterity where you have to be on point with your punchlines and ready with fresh bars on the regular, otherwise risk losing credibility in the scene. Catchphrases pepper the rhetoric like adlibs pepper the singles. MPs send for MPs like MCs send for MCs, with diss tracks taking the shape of news interviews on television and radio. The road show is the stage show, complete with entourage, supporters and photo shoots. Manifestos are albums to get the crowd on board with the campaign. And come to think of it, how many times do you hear artists calling their projects ‘campaigns’ in the first place? The only real difference is that political parties don’t come with a DJ. (This is a line that, like the headline to this piece, I must credit to Sway’s verse in the song ‘Harvey Nicks’).

The fact remains that politics is a forum for power struggle where we see the clash between reality and ideology – something that grime understands well. As well as a celebration of black British heritage and an important, millennial cultural artefact, grime can be read as a by-product of disenfranchisement. This is where so much of its potency comes from; the frustration with an imbalanced status quo. In Marxist terms it’s a proletariat backlash against the privileged, ruling elite. Grime is an underdog success story that, through giving a voice to one specific voiceless minority, has inadvertently created a safe space for an entire disillusioned generation to break the rules and challenge the rulers. 

This might explain why the grime/ politics venn diagram has converged into one left-leaning circle, encapsulated by the recent #Grime4Corbyn social media campaign. It’s no accident that Old Labour, represented by Jeremy Corbyn, has tuned its dial to the sound of grime out of the post-Blair static. Corbyn is Labour’s underdog, unwaveringly left of centre and faced with the impossible tasks of a) uniting a broken party and b) winning over a country dominated by small c conservative voters. 

But can the rebel ever have a cause? Part of grime’s illicit appeal is that it operates outside of the establishment, putting up two gunfingers and refusing to acquiesce to the powers that be. In recent conversation with Jeremy Corbyn, JME admitted to having never voted in the past. Meanwhile, Akala, one of the UK’s most politically vociferous rappers, has gone on record as saying that he has never voted in a General Election. However, despite these acts of political rebellion both artists have come out in vocal support of Jeremy Corbyn.

There is something tangibly socialist and local and liberal and optimistic and angry about grime that throws it to the frontline of the UK’s ongoing political, ideological debate. It’s a neat irony that one of the oldest Prime Ministerial candidates of recent times has found such a comfortable home in the most relevant youth culture to  emerge from Britain this century, proving, perhaps, that the fires raging beneath the spiky abrasions of grime have always been ready to ignite society at large.

Grime going to the ballot might represent a new optimism in modern politics despite the rebellious streak that crackles in its core. The cynic would argue that grime is simply enjoying a moment of mainstream fascination that has leaked into the political discourse, echoing that weird moment in 1997 when New Labour invited Britpop into Number 10 (soundtracked by D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’). But unlike that spin-heavy exercise in PR, there’s an organic honesty to Grime’s political evolution that makes the optimism easy to believe. How ironic: that a culture with a name synonymous with dirt has shone brightest just when outsider politics needed a beacon the most.

Jeffrey Boakye’s Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & The Meaning Of Grime is published by Influx Press – preorder it via their website

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