Political Promise

Grime Doesn’t Pay

In Aaron Frazer on March 3, 2010 at 9:00 am

There’s a well known term in the US called the cultural wars. This is defined by right wingers condemning pervasive cultural norms and also those on the periphery. Some of the most incendiary attacks are reserved for what are in my opinion, gargantuan red herrings. However when accurately aimed, appropriate and well judged, it should be asked; why should right wingers have all the fun? Especially when the left can provide an authoritative and pertinent critique of a modern social trend. One that I hope is resumed is that of grime music. Despite its ability to adopt mainstream lyrical and stylistic norms, Grime music is still the self appointed music of the “streets” (yes I hate this phrase too). I work on the streets; mostly in the capacity of Brent youth services who send me and other youth workers on to troubled council estates to do outreach and engagement work. The young men in such areas listen disproportionately and sometimes exclusively to grime music. When Brent Council asks youngsters to choose the activity for investment it is primarily to hire music producers to teach them how to make grime.  High tempo, incredibly claustrophobic and frantic, grime’s structure and form provides a strong basis for  a subtext  of agitation, confrontation and aggression. The artists, nowhere near as diverse as UK or US hip Hop, have primarily become well known through no lyrics barred “battles” where the objective is to intimidate, humiliate and emasculate an opponent. This has become so normalised in mainstream grime music where artists remain preoccupied by rivals both real and imagined. At the risk of sounding unforgivably snobby and arrogant many of the young people I work with who listen to grime neither have diverse music tastes nor do they participate in  particularly varied social activities. In sum they are not exposed to cultural “forces” which challenge the values disseminated by grime or simply provide an alternative perspective on issues relevant to them. Despite the noble exceptions grime reiterates the absurd and misplaced importance of “respect”. More than most other music forms it provides an opportunity to create an unchallenged self-construct which is very empowering and self-affirming for young people who can vicariously live through the fantasies of promiscuity and decadent wealth. The saturation of images in grime of status derived wealth has created rigid parameters for what is deemed acceptable and undermines a regular defence that grime is a conducive to individual expression and creativity.

If you may be unconvinced that a format which encourages often insecure violent people to humiliate and criticise other insecure and violent people then just look at Grime’s history. This is little to do with urban deprivation but a music form in which artists have to constantly compete with and refute gratuitous presentations of status, wealth and aggression. Like US hip hop artists in grime are seldom nice to each other but develop a defensive herd mentality when criticised by wider society. These criticisms are not always accurate or helpful yet none of them get a coherent response from grime artists. Though the people who forward such attacks may be misplaced in their preconceptions or prejudicial to the culture generally they are often coherent; not least because in Grime despite the ubiquity of (ever changing) slang the messages are invariably explicit, unambiguous and one dimensional (not in itself a bad thing). Therefore when David Cameron criticised Lethal Bizzle and Westwood for glamorising and promoting violence his tone and posturing may have been ill considered but the basic content of his argument was broadly right. That old defence of simply reporting social trends is vacuous; virtually every Grime song about violence, apart from mawkish ones lamenting its prevalence, either identify or rationalise such behaviour or more commonly promote it indiscriminately. With Grime whether its the conspiratorial and pessimistic conceptions of “the system” or the defensive and incoherent way Grime artists respond to media hostility one glaring constant is how weakness and incoherence flourishes when  people do not acknowledge or accommodate a solid counter argument.

Aaron Frazer

  1. Grime is an amazing and misunderstood genre, a true catharsis for our young ppl.

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