On the last night of the winter semester (is it just me who shudders at not calling it a ‘term’ any more?) I braved the end of year fatigue and headed out to a gig – kind of an ensemble affair but headed by brothers and members of Boy Better Know Skepta and JME. I know that as a white girl from the London suburbs with the privilege of a university education, I can’t wholly claim to be of the world that the grime scene originated from. However, with a council house background and definitely not born into the middle classes, I feel like I can lay more claim than half of the people who went there.
This column is not about those people. There’s an amazing Independent article that already articulates everything I want to say about them in words better than I could use. This column is about how grime music can be used, and was used, as a political tool that can magnify and give voice to the dissent of thousands of people. This is, of course, not the only way that it can be used – the language of aspiration is also pertinent in the scene.
At the end of JME and Skepta’s (sick as fuck) headline set, the video montage that had been playing all night changed to a more political set of imagery – David Cameron, David Cameron again, but looking pissed off, the Queen, David Cameron with a pig, the Queen looking pissed off. Echoing the white girl monologue from Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ – “a group of young men, all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressively onstage – it made me feel so intimidated and it’s just not what I expect to see” – the visceral imagery tapped into the stigmatisation of black youth culture by the predominantly white media tycoons with such little effort.
The existence of the grime scene in an era characterised by austerity, police brutality and the re-emergence of overt institutional racism (if it ever really ‘went away’ – which we all know it didn’t) is a political protest in itself, and so is the aspiration that is ever-present in the scene. Take Stormzy – an artist beloved of white boys countrywide who’ve swapped their Hype tops for pool sliders in an attempt to curry favour with the bindi-wearing ex-horsey girls who’ve just adopted ‘this new genre called grime, yah’. His track ‘Shut Up’ took Twitter by storm in an attempt to make it Christmas number 1 – but lyrics like ‘I set trends, them man copy’ and ‘nowadays all of my shows sold out’ are going to resonate more strongly with those who’ve been there since the beginning.
As the hordes of people filed out of the venue – some of whom I don’t doubt had been there since JME first released ‘Famous?’, some of whom probably didn’t dive into the back catalogue deeper than ‘That’s Not Me’ and some in the middle, like me – I had to wonder whether those who picked up grime like a commodity as it becomes cool again realise what it means for people who use counterculture as the one form of expression in a time where more and more of it is getting shut down (sorry, couldn’t help it). I looked back at the Queen’s face above an empty stage and I wondered whether there was any point in wondering as the energy in the venue dissipated out over London.