#MoreLife, More Americans Have to Wake Up to a Rap Culture That's Not Just Theirs
The continued refusal to understand British rap culture is as ignorant as the initial criticism of American rap being an inferior form of music.
Of all the criticism, praise and knee-jerk reactions that rode in on the grand cruise ship known as Drake's More Life – was "Fake Love" added to boost its chart position? Does the cover art heavily draw from Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby? Who (besides Drake and Frank Ocean's auntie) still uses voicemail? – one particular strand of conversation stood out. Namely: the weighty amount of American rap fans taking to Twitter to ask who Giggs is – and the Brits responding with all the force such an attack on collective identity deserves. SMH, KMT, etc.
Giggs, who appears on two tracks on More Life – and is joined on the playlist by British acts Sampha, Jorja Smith and Skepta – was subjected to the following three points of critique from American rap fans:
- Eurgh, British people rapping, I don't understand what they're saying. I don't get it!
- As Samuel L Jackson may have said: "I'm not knocking the Brits, but imagine what an African American could have done on that song";
- British rappers are some "Tea cake eatin', Idris Elba lookin', black Harry Potter soundin' ass niggas".
Of course, as a British writer and fan of British music, it's clear these evaluations are steeped in some ignorance of the highest order. But for the performative dance of fighting for Britain – and also what's culturally right – let's quickly get into why these three points most closely resemble stinking piles of bullshit. Number one is easy: the biggest trend to come from American rap recently is musicians who release their bars with all the parlance of a toddler who has a dummy stuck deep in the crevices of their mouth. Number two and three, though, are more nuanced and tied up in a cultural history that makes a good argument as to why British Rap is Good and Why America Is Wrong About It.
In order to understand why America Is Wrong, it's important to get into what rap means to America. For a long time, it's been the medium through which the rest of us have viewed the country. Although most Americans still look toward Harry Potter and Downton Abbey as the cultural touchstones of the United Kingdom, rap music has allowed the rest of the world to understand there's more to the Great Land of Opportunity than parking lots, questionable health-care policy and fat old men yeehaw-ing their way to a monster truck derby or a discount clothing superstore. Music has taught us that the topography of places like Atlanta or Brooklyn – their slang, their fashions, their music – is as much a part of American culture than anything you could see in a poorly made travel documentary.
Here in London – a place where we'll call you a dickhead with cold, hard enunciation – Giggs is doing a similar cultural thing. Britain may be known for its bland food and infatuation with David Beckham, but it resembles an aesthetic as cold and harsh as Giggs voice. He is to south London what Jay Z was to Brooklyn in the 1990s, Kendrick Lamar to LA in the 2010s, Pimp C and UGK to Houston in the 2000s; from the idioms to the cadence, he is a monument of his area – and wider Britain now, as a whole – capturing an essence of the place that you're not going to find in a Time Out pull-out. If America could look to Giggs the same way the rest of the world looks to their music, perhaps they could learn something. After all, being educated by other cultures, experiences and emotions is one of the purest and important reasons why music exists. It's interesting to note that as a Canadian, Drake initially had to conform to American rap standards and only now, with more fame, is slipping back into the Torontonian culture of his home. He has done for his country what he's now helping the Brit acts featured on his album do for theirs.
To see the wider rap community refuse to engage with Giggs can feel frustrating because, when it comes from a place of ignorance – not opening up to understand the lyrics, seeing Britain as an inferior player in rap music, not being aware of the cultural history – there's a strong parallel to be drawn with the way rap was responded to when it first broke out in the US. Back then, it was negated as an artform in much the same way Giggs has been on More Life: it's hard to understand, it's just talking, other forms of music inherently have more cultural worth, etc etc etc. But as the rise of rap has shown, the music is a predominant and incomparably interesting and informative part of American culture, capable of shifting perception in much the same way as British rap could be if it was given as much the time of day.
That said, if there's anything positive to be gleaned from the fuckery of America's so-called ownership of rap is that it's exciting to bring cultural, tribalistic warfare back to music. Inasmuch as its negative to see another country refuse to engage with your culture, it also breeds frustration – which, in turn, breeds some of the best art. In a sense the best thing Americans can do for Britain is continue to ignore its best work because they're only stoking the fire of a bigger flame of pride for homegrown talent – and, in turn, helping some of our biggest names become the symbols of national identity they deserve. To use the meme of Meryl Streep that's going round…
You can find Ryan on Twitter.