UK Grime Needs Validation from America as Much as You Need a Punch in the Mouth
BBC 1Xtra’s Sian Anderson tells us what to really think about Kanye co-signing grime and UK rap at last week’s Brits.
It’s been almost a week since the Brits, and we've had time to reflect. But in the desperate scrambles for contrarian context, it doesn’t seem like anybody can decide on whether Kanye West getting a selection of the UK’s finest rap and grime stars to join him on-stage was a necessary move or a progressive one. So, low and behold, people are doing exactly what they tend to do when they’re kept in the dark in situations they want to address: they’re making assumptions.
The main ones are:
A) That UK artists desperately desire validation or verification from America.
B) That they attended because they thought it would be progressive for the UK scene.
C) That these artists would never have been on a Brits stage if it hadn’t happened, but really should be.
Now, I’ve seen every thinkpiece, painfully pondered every tweet and (I have to admit) giggled at every meme. I’ve been invited to three different filmed panels to discuss it, and I’ve declined. Why? Because I fear that I’ll end up pulling the UK equivalent of that Azealia Banks Hot 97 interview, where passion and frustration collide amidst a conversation laced with uneducated ignorance, leaving me in a pool of my own tears. And honestly, manabadman from south London - that’s not me, I’m not down.
First things first, the Brits are not the issue here. The Brits represent artists shortlisted from successful positions in the UK chart. Whether they were accurate or systematic with the shortlist of nominees is in itself is a whole separate blog post, but let’s not get it twisted that the Brits are there to represent British culture on a whole - I don’t think they ever said they were. If you don’t know by now that the British Charts do not directly reflect British Culture then you’re already leading yourself into a conversational brick wall. If all of the people in my area who absolutely love Fekky’s “Still Sitting Here” didn’t just rip it from YouTube, and actually had an iTunes account, then yeah, maybe singles like that would be going top ten in the UK Charts more often, and therefore on the Brits.
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being drawn to So Solid Crew performing at the Brits in 2002 and a lot people voicing frustration that it hasn’t happened since. But let’s get one thing straight, So Solid had three top ten singles from their They Don’t Know album between 2001 and 2003. They reflected the UK charts of the time and therefore were appropriate for the Brits. Personally if I turned on my TV and genuinely saw that selection of UK grime and rap artists down at the Brits finessing with Taylor Swift, I’d vex. I’m waiting for your album and you’re sat at the Brit Awards popping champagne with Harry Styles ex girlfriend? Drop me out and get back in the studio mate. Drop a phenomenal album, chart, come back next year when you’ve sold Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith units and are eligible for a nomination if a Brit Award is so important to you.
Now, whether or not Skepta, Jammer, Novelist, Stormzy, Shorty, Fekky, Krept & Konan and everyone else getting up on stage with Kanye is progressive or not is, in my opinion, a dumb ass question. There is never going to be a world in which Kanye West - who has had seven studio albums, two live albums, four mixtapes, one hundred and eight singles and ninety one music videos, worldwide - being in the same room as our leading UK artists from scenes that were generated in small parts of north, east, west and south London is not a progressive move. It’s motivating no matter who you are; Kanye West is a powerful and talented guy.
Yes it’s a little cute of Kanye to pick up on the UK now at a time when grime and road rap are the in-thing. But the notion that West has patronised and taken advantage of our scene by inviting those artists up there removes agency from the very stars that decided to join him, and falsely portrays some of the most direct and headstrong names in UK music right now as helpless and naive lambs. Are you telling me that these men, who have fought tirelessly to open doors within the scene and take it to these heights, and who make decisions for themselves daily knowing that their personal career moves will affect the gateway for the next generation, didn’t know what they were doing when they agreed to be on that stage? And were just chasing validation?
Take a second look at who was up there. In the grime scene, Boy Better Know have put in the most relentless work to break down any international barriers they have faced. They've done Red Bull Culture Clash and taken grime to Jamaica. They've worked with P Diddy (Skepta) and Cam'ron (Wiley) and crossed grime over to the US. They’ve just been to New York and taken the next generation out with them, putting shows on as they went. In the middle of this Skepta is fighting for Nigerian rights in the Nigerian Lives Matter campaign, Jammer is running up and down the country putting new MC’s on the map with Lord of the Mics, and Novelist is working on his album with XL Recordings, probably the most revered independent label in the world. These are not guys who have been just waiting for the opportunity to go weak at the knees over a chart co-sign. The reason grime and UK rap are on the cusp of becoming uniquely special propositions right now, is because of how grounded and determined its leading exponents have become.
I have countless Wiley tunes in my inbox that blow “Heatwave” (a number one single) out of the chart friendly water. If Boy Better Know wanted to, they could jump on those and have another top ten single right now. But these past eighteen months haven’t been about that. What the current UK rap and grime artists are trying to do is redefine ‘pop’ so that it becomes something inclusive of real rap and grime music - “Heatwave Part 2” is not the answer.
The current UK grime and rap crop are nailing the groundwork right now, and may soon take our whole scene into new places. There are album releases due from Skepta and Krept & Konan in the next few months, plus more music from Boy Better Know, and up-and-comers like Novelist and Stormzy (who is being schmoozed by every major label alive) can only really look to those artists for inspiration and guidance with regards to each of the scene’s next major chess moves. It makes me wonder sometimes where Boy Better Know even get their inspiration and guidance from when it comes to taking grime to the masses, and perhaps even one day making it Brits viable in its unfiltered form. After all, our biggest example of a successful UK rapper who originated from the same scene as we did and went on to be a phenomenal chart success is Tinie Tempah, but he didn't get there by making a grime or road rap tune. But this UK grime and rap crop haven’t put a foot wrong yet, and it’s up to us to keep the faith, rather than openly question their motives.
If coming out at the Brits for a powerful and rebellious moment with Kanye West isn't progressive and inspirational for the current UK grime and rap family to see how far they can take their shit without compromise, then show me something that is. Even if all that was, was them wanting to experience the feeling of being on stage with a global rap magnate then we should respect that and hope that it gave them a different type of motivation to get back in the studio and wrap up their albums. It didn’t surprise me that a Skepta track (listen above), which samples a quote from the media about the Brits performance, was rushed into mastering and released within days of the event. I bet the biggest fire on stage at the Brits wasn’t coming out of those flamethrowers, it was in the belly of the boys behind it.
So, if you want to ask some real questions about Kanye and the UK grime and rap scene at the Brits, then it shouldn’t be: "Were the actions of Kayne and co progressive for the UK Scene?", because that much is a given. It should be about why it took an American artist to nail this gesture as opposed to our top tier of UK ones in attendance. Why aren’t they reaching out and empowering us? That should be our main frustration, that should be the conversation.
Sian Anderson is a self-titled grime activist and presents on BBC Radio 1Xtra every Wednesday night. Follow her on Twitter.