J Hus, Knife Crime and the Way the UK Mainstream Consumes Music
When it comes to reporting on and engaging with British urban music, people in positions of privilege and power need to step up their game.
I remember being at a house party in 2007, where I plugged the speakers into my iPod and played Skepta and Plastician’s classic grime collab “Intensive Snare.” It received roars of approval from my mates – but strict, finger-wagging disgust from the hosts of the party. The song was changed and I was lectured for “putting on badman music.” The event recently took on a whole new meaning when a couple of years ago, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I was surprised to see the same group who had hosted the party posting a selfie at a Skepta performance.
Music and people’s tastes evolve. The fact grime, and its flag-bearers such as Skepta, Wiley and Stormzy, have since risen to higher prominence and are now celebrated as cultural treasures is a positive thing. But still, accounting for any teenage frustration I might have felt at being usurped as DJ, and the implicit racism of the language I was dealt, something about the incident at that party, and the subsequent U-turn by its hosts, has always sat so awkwardly in my mind’s rearview. More specifically, I take issue with the contradictory way the music was so intensely looked-down upon in one instance, and yet suddenly welcomed as cool in the next.
Last Friday, J Hus appeared in court after being arrested and charged with possession of a knife in his hometown of Stratford, east London. The event has injected uncertainty into the likelihood of Hus’ performances at festivals this summer, including London’s Wireless on 7 July. It has also been reproduced as news across mainstream media outlets by publications who would not usually hone in so closely to report on the life of a UK rapper. This includes a bizarre feature about Hus in The Sun, which features a section explaining the type of knife he was accused of carrying and then another section detailing the lyrics of “Dark Vader”, a single off his Big Spang EP released last month, as if to connect the two.
This type of reaction to Hus’ situation is indicative of a broader set of problems prevalent within British society, specifically in how our media reports on, and makes sense of, the complex, troubled realities that exist behind certain underground and urban music. All of these problems are bound by a contradictory thread of privilege, and the blind willingness of those in relative positions of power to appropriate ethnic minority subcultures as and when, and how, they see fit.
The first problem is that while the arrest of someone of Hus’ stature – a MOBO-award winner with a top 10 single under his belt, and a pioneer of London’s current fusion of diasporic black musical genres – is significant news, it does not exist in a social vacuum. Much of the response to his alleged crime uses language that ultimately – without full context – frames him as an individual agent who is devoid of sense, throwing away his music career.
The fact is that, like a disproportionate number of young people from pressured, impoverished backgrounds, and single-parent homes in the inner-city, Hus will have overcome a huge set of barriers to get to where he is today. By succeeding in music, he will have managed to transcend many of the financial trappings and behaviours of his challenging past. But that does not mean he will have, by simply becoming famous, escaped a context in which claustrophobia and paranoia reign supreme for many of the most vulnerable young adults in London. For many people, particularly those from poor ethnic minority backgrounds, growing up is more about subsistence and survival than thriving in a society which is not only failing, but actively demonises them. In fact, Hus’ fame, especially while spending time in the area he grew-up in, will have made him even more of a target and increased the propensity of someone wanting to harm him.
The second problem is that the widespread, if shallow, reporting on the incident has demonstrated that many publications are more reactive to negative news about otherwise successful London MCs, than positive stories about their impressive rise. The Daily Mail were, of course, one of the publications to report about Hus’ arrest, despite having a comprehensively poor history of demonising anyone who doesn’t adhere to traditional, narrow, white types of British culture, especially when it comes to music. The paper has repeatedly attacked Stormzy, for example, arguing that he ought to show “gratitude” to the British government for having grown up as an immigrant in London, after he denounced Theresa May for the neglect shown to Grenfell Tower’s residents last year at the Brit awards, and even claiming his music fuels the use of skunk. There is such a multitude of inspiring, positive stories to tell about the success of young musicians from different backgrounds. Yet as is so often the case in the haphazard and partisan way the British media interprets youth culture, negativity tends to reign supreme.
The third problem relates to my experience at the house party over a decade ago. The way grime was contradictorily dismissed as a challenge to the comfortable, middle-class norms of the social environment I was in, but then embraced as a source of entertainment a decade later, is comparable to the dismissal of reporting with any nuance on Hus’ actions. When peripheral types of music fit neatly into mainstream cultural consumption, when they are seen as relevant and positively edgy, or when the behaviours of their artists can be appropriated for clickable, newsworthy content, the media quickly forget about the difficult circumstances from which its artists often come. Instead, when those circumstances – in this case Hus’ perceived need to arm himself – confront the accepted understanding of how urban music ought to behave, or sound, or be characterised, they are simplified, demonised and dealt shallow analysis.
The moral panic about the alleged link between drill music and rising youth violence in London that has shaken media centres and living rooms across the UK is a case-in-point. I have written about how, more than anything else, drill is a cry for help from a generation of young men who have been shut-out of British society on every level, and have thus taken to creating their own emotional outlet. But with its balaclavas, lyrics about extreme violence and generally provocative tone, the music has become an easy target for the media, legal and political establishments to explain away a worsening epidemic of violence in the capital (rather than seek to understand and cure its root causes using a public health approach).
However, it was not long ago that Big Shaq’s novelty song “Man’s Not Hot”, which uses one of the most famous drill beats, 67’s “Let’s Lurk”, nearly became Christmas number one. It has since been watched 277 million times on YouTube. Although in jest, it refers to many of the themes explored in the majority of drill songs: including drug-dealing, guns and misogynistic showboating. So it appears, in this case, that while (black) urban music culture is packaged in ridicule and parody, undermining the seriousness of how neglected, bleak and desperate the lives of many young men making it can be, the mass media and British population at-large are perfectly willing to embrace it.
Unless people are able to consume and enjoy underground subcultural produce at arms length, without having to think about the difficult or challenging reality that it is often sourced from, it is rarely given a balanced hearing. We require more from our media in its engagement with the roots of music culture and the lives of artists who contribute towards it. Because simply cherry-picking surface level aspects of artistic expression, without properly trying to understand and be compassionate about its deeper social complexities – the very complexities that often make music as exciting and progressive as it is – will only further demarcate cultural boundaries in our patchwork society.
You can find Ciaran on Twitter.