The Poet Laureate Is Up For Renewal: Could Grime Be The Answer?

Jeffrey Boakye was going to write us a piece on why Mercury-winner J Hus ought to be the next British Poet Laureate but, halfway through, he realised that a movement, not an individual, might be deserving of the sack of sherry

So, I think I’ve already messed this up.

The plan was simple: this article was going to be a straightforward elevator pitch for why J Hus, Mercury nominated Afro-Swing star, East London native, purveyor of Gucci, self-labelled ‘Mr Ugly’ and creator of the catchiest hooks of all time (more on that later), should be the next Poet Laureate. It’s a very timely notion, what with the current Laureate’s tenure up for renewal in 2018 and J Hus enjoying a sharp ascent to fame this year, linked to his award-baiting album, Common Sense.

But this isn’t even really about that. It’s about his poetry, or, to be honest, the fact that I have been completely seduced by his turn of expression. My plan was to explain, with enthusiasm and, I hoped, wit, how J Hus was perfectly placed to take up the position of the nation’s official poet in residence. A twenty-first century wordsmith ready for royal engagements.

It started with a tweet from the Poetry Society asking me (and anyone else with access to the internet) what my favourite poem is, to which I replied:

Honestly? At the moment? This:

"Did you see what I done? / Came in a black Benz, left in a white one"

I could write essays on that couplet. In fact, I almost did. About the freewheeling bravado tinged with insecurity. The interplay of racialised inferiority and accidental lurch into purity. The panicked realisation of success, dancing on that ambivalent, ubiquitous metonym for success; the Mercedes Benz. I could go on.

With only the one full length album, an underground hit mixtape and a small clutch of street-hot anthems to his name, J Hus has a growing catalogue that is peppered with lines of this calibre, swollen with contrast and dancing in the slippery gaps of meaning in which all the best poetry lives. This was going to be the crux of my argument, that J Hus has a natural poetic capacity that should elevate him beyond the charts and would absolutely justify his appointment as the nation’s official poet in residence.

That’s obviously one of the big jobs of the Laureate – to find poetry in the shadows, make the familiar, unfamiliar, and find magic in the everyday. On this level, J Hus is an instant win. "She asks me what I do, I say I play for the gunners". Playful danger far greater than an Arsenal pun, the ‘she’ of mainstream interest being told implicitly that a new generation of criminally inclined success stories is playing a whole new game. It’s like, welcome to the millennium, in little poetic jabs, playful shoves. Irresistible.

To be fair, Carol Ann Duffy is great at this. Punning her way through provocations in a way that forces new perspectives without sacrificing any sense of play, sometimes to the point of getting kicked off GCSE exam courses, as happened with her supposed knife-crime-promoting ‘Education for Leisure’. A good laureate should be accessible and elusive in this way, and more than a bit controversial. Ted Hughes was a good example, pushing the dialect of his childhood throughout his body of work while being reluctantly cast as villain in the tragedy of Sylvia Plath. This eventually evolved into the super liberal appointment of anti-archetypal Duffy: a woman, a lesbian, and definitely not a dead white man in waiting. The next logical step? A millennial, black, son of immigrants, raised by a single mother in council high rises and self-made, self-styled rapscallion of course. Did you see what I done?

Then I was going to explain how the poet laureate’s job is to reflect the age and represent the people, a tradition started by Andrew Motion, one of the most popular Laureates of all time, who turned the role into a personal mission to translate the modern world and make sense of it all. I would love to see what J Hus would do with Trump, terrorism, the royal baby, global warming, North Korea, Bake Off on 4, celebrity deaths, etc, etc. The mind that can make out here it’s windy y’kna sound like a lament to urban violence could work wonders with current affairs, I’m sure of it.

The problem is that I don’t think he can do it alone. Not yet anyway. Hence why my pitch is struggling to get off the ground floor. J Hus might be as good a poet as any of our Laureates to date but he just hasn’t been around long enough to amass the body of work necessary to qualify. Perhaps he’s just a particularly shiny example of a new type of poet that we need to make sense of a new type of world. Perhaps he’s one of many artists of now who could do the job, with a slight shift of focus away from commercial success. Maybe what I’m really saying is that we don’t actually need a single poet to be Poet Laureate; we need a whole new attitude, a set of values, a new perspective, a scene. Ding. First floor. Maybe grime should be the new Poet Laureate.

The irony of poetry in a millennial context is that it is somehow both archaic and relevant at the same time, a dead artform that lives on in unlikely contexts: popular music, advertising, twitter… (making 140 characters into an engaging narrative is a poetic endeavour if ever there was one). As a lyrically-driven artform, grime is arguably the UK’s most prevalent stage for modern poetry, offering an endless stream of verse from endlessly inventive wordsmiths. This is a big deal, that a millennial pop culture success story is keeping poetry afloat, giving the selfie generation reason to explore and enjoy language pushed to the limit, and have a dance at the same time.

It’s also a big deal that grime has a full decade and a half of consciousness under its belt, with a heritage that stems far further back. If it was a single person, grime’s CV is an overpacked suitcase of poetic energy, making comment from the margins and speaking to Generation Now with intent, insight and idiosyncrasy. J Hus isn’t even strictly speaking a grime artist, but his worldview is absolutely couched in norms of that culture, made super-accessible through melody and song, (rather than the frenetic beats and bars that characterise grime but might prove impenetrable to a mainstream audience). This is why my instinct was for Mr Ugly to step up as the people’s poet, because, like Tennyson and Duffy and Motion and Hughes and the rest of them, he’s not afraid to keep it simple on the road to profundity. Whether or not he can single handedly do the job is up for debate, but the ecosystem in which he resides is all set and ready to go.

So, with 172 words left, I’d like to propose a new title for this piece. The Poet Laureate is up for renewal: Could Grime be the answer? I think, yes. In fact, I think it’s already happening. The Grenfell Tower disaster saw a celebrity charity single led by grime’s Man of the Moment, Stormzy, kicking off proceedings with a poignant verse reflecting on the tragedy. Go back a few years and ‘Pow!’, Lethal B’s audio equivalent of a Molotov Cocktail, became an unofficial anthem for student protest in 2011. Kano’s Mercury-nominated Made In the Manor can be read as a treatise on black, urban adolescent maturation, as can Dizzee Rascal’s Mercury-winning 2003 classic, Boy In Da Corner. The examples keep coming.

These artists might not have been deliberately crafting verses for the nation, but grime shines with sparks of commentary and catharsis. Now that the mainstream seems to have finally opened its doors to the culture, it might be time for the scene to shine a poetic light from the margins into the frame.

Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & the Meaning of Grime by Jeffrey Boakye is out now via Influx Press. J Hus is on tour this autumn

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