The London riots are yet more proof that urban music should be looked to as a reflection, not a cause, of urban discontent, says Piers Barber.
The idea that hip hop and its descendent subgenres are to blame for all the world’s violence and antisocial difficulties is, of course, an argument which is almost as old as the music itself. On the whole, it is a stuffy and archaic claim, but one that was levelled with force against London’s urban music scene by some high profile commentators following the London riots earlier this summer. Desperate to reach some kind of understanding of the causes of the debacle, one article in the Mirror sought to blame “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority [and] exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs”. The article’s solution was to “ban the broadcasting of poisonous rap”.
Such claims, whilst wildly unrealistic, are to a point understandable. Superstar artists such as Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal, whose careers began as MCs based in some of the areas most affected in August, have hardly been deafening in their condemnation of the riots. Even the chart friendly performer Wretch 32 could be seen tweeting “I wish I was there” as looting unfolded in Tottenham, the area of London in which he grew up. Their brand of playful, chart friendly grime, glamorising wealth and extravagant partying, has been particularly identified as an influence behind the materially motivated looting of items like televisions and trainers during the August riots.
Many of the MCs in question have been quick to respond to such allegations. Professor Green, a white rapper from Hackney, has been one the most vocal supporters of his genre. In the aftermath of the riots, he was greeted with support when he insisted that “neither my music or that of my peers is to blame for society and its faults. We didn’t create the tiers”. He also went on to sensibly point out that the act of silencing rap would be far from the ideal method of increasing the self worth of an already under-represented social class. Music remains one of the few escape routes out of dull and violent lives for many of those in deprived neighbourhoods, and a channel through which more imaginative and ambitious figures can find the confidence to discover their voice and express their views.
A closer look at the rapid development of London’s own brand of hip-hop, away from the likes of Chipmunk’s pop influenced rap, suggests that many analysts may have missed a trick when attempting to understand how urban discontent manifested itself so dramatically. Many London MCs have been attempting to highlight the increasingly volatile atmosphere festering in their home boroughs of London for years; a grittier approach reflected in the composition of their music. Delivered in his characteristically sinister monotone, Flow Dan, for example, can be heard being darkly prophetic on important grime crew Roll Deep’s landmark track Badman: “These are some serious times/ And it’s only getting worse cos the streets ain’t nice”.
For many artists, violence and drugs are not something to be glorified. Indeed, many have used their music as a platform in order to draw attention to the feelings of boredom, hopelessness and abandonment which have manifest themselves amongst the disaffected youth of today’s Britain. These views have been echoed by social commentators seeking to explain the underlying cause of the riots. Dizzee Rascal’s debut Boy In Da Corner, a masterpiece memorable for its riveting but uncomfortably stark beats, is a candid exploration of the desperate mood of hopelessness present across many of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. On Sittin’ Here, Rascal is powerful in his portrayal of his feelings of powerlessness, depicting a life where he is “Vexed at humanity vexed at the earth,/I’m sittin’ here vexed,/‘Til I think what’s the worth”. As he watches his neighbourhood deteriorate around him, “scared cos it’s sweet but it could turn sour”, he is wholly aware of the potential for violence and crime amongst his increasingly volatile community.
Further understanding can be glimpsed by looking at the approach of a variety of artists: many are proud of their communities yet distraught at their potential for self destruction. “This London city,/The best city in the world when ever when everybody’s not shanking and blasting” (Devlin – ‘London City’), whilst others seem to have grown long resigned to the existing situation: “this is the roads and there’s only one strategy, though I hate my reality, it’s just way it has to be” (Akala – ‘Stand Up’). The riots have already provoked reaction from a variety of MCs, with Rival concluding those involved should not be blamed to the same extent as the conditions of their communities: “They were just animals, stuck in their habitat” (Rival – ‘Talk That’).
Instead of attempting to suppress and ignore it, music is just one of the mediums through which authorities and analysts should attempt to understand the functioning of their societies. Bands such as the Specials and the Clash have already proven that protest music is an important social tool, often going down in history as some most captivating and engaging music ever created. Its desperation and clamour to be heard should be appreciated, applauded and understood. It seems rather self-important for music analysts to blame local artists for the unfolding of such extreme behaviour. Music does not have the power to influence behaviour in the way that underfunded social services, unemployment and drug dependency, undeniably do. Its power as an instrument of understanding, however, should never be underestimated.
Follow Piers on Twitter @piersbarber18