A Conversation with Wretch 32 About Police Brutality, and His Brand New Video for “Liberation”
We're premiering the North London rapper's new video, which tackles police brutality and racial profiling head on.
This article was originally published on Noisey UK
"Over-policed as suspects and under-policed as victims"—those are the words that, for the last 20 to 30 years, have been frequently rebounded around cases of police brutality and racial profiling of black men and women in the UK. But what's changed in 2016?
When it comes to mainstream news visibility, the incidences of police brutality in America often seem to overshadow those same incidences in the UK, where it's frequently brushed under the carpet. Perhaps it's because America has more immobilised action groups on this issue, who make sure every story is heard and justice is sought. Perhaps it's because British police attack victims with truncheons instead of guns. But the statistics, if you search them out, still do all the talking. As Siana Bangura (director of a forthcoming crowdfunded documentary on the subject) wrote for The Fader: “Over 1500 people have died in, or following, police custody in the U.K. since 1990. A report by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows that, of this number, more than 500 were Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals. Yet, according to the IRR, not a single police official has been successfully prosecuted.”
Today, we're premiering a video from Wretch 32 for his new song "Liberation"—a powerful and angry rap track about the injustice of police brutality and racial profiling in the UK, which proffers that the issue shows no signs of disappearing in present day. “It would be harder for me to find a friend who hasn’t been beaten up by the police,” says Wretch. “But when the police commit a crime on you, it’s hard to know who to tell.”
The video uses numerous metaphors to illustrate the problem, and closes with the powerful image of a police officer himself being arrested and shoved in the backseat. The man arresting him is Wretch's uncle, Stafford Scott, a tireless activist for human rights and equality, and someone who was deeply entrenched in seeking justice during the case of Mark Duggan, which kick started the England riots of 2011. “It was good to have him arresting the policeman in the video,” explains Wretch, “because he doesn’t represent violence... he represents injustice.“
The song is a powerful return to form for the North London artist whose output has been mixed over the last 12 months. On the one hand he's probably one of the most gifted and lyrically dexterous British rappers we've ever birthed in the UK; a man who can churn out searing rap mixtapes (see: Young Fire, Old Flame) and God-level freestyles on your favourite YouTube channel without breaking a solitary bead of sweat (“The hardest verse Fire in the Booth has ever had,” said Charlie Sloth). But simultaneously, he's also become the UK chart-bothering commercial rapper du jour, releasing catchy but innocuous pop songs (see: “Alright With Me”) that you'd smile to and tolerate on the radio in a traffic jam, with catchy but innocuous pop stars like Alesha Dixon, Anne-Marie, and Josh Kumra.
It's a quandary I put into writing last December in the article "Wretch 32’s 1Xtra Freestyle is Staggering, so Why Are His Singles so Bait?". Wretch later read the article, and last month he confronted me about it on Twitter. So, with "Liberation" premiering on Noisey, we decided to catch up for a chat about the issues he’s raising in the song, and whether or not he agreed with me saying that watching him do something amazing was like "watching Macklemore Jekyll and Hyde himself into Kendrick for an evening."
Watch the video premiere of “Liberation” and read our Q&A with Wretch below.
Noisey: Hi Wretch. Tell me about “Liberation”?
Wretch: That song is like my musical frustration moment. I’m annoyed by what I’m seeing and hearing. There are so many things happening to so many people that don’t have a voice. As an artist, I need to speak on behalf of myself, but also other people.
What’s your experience with police brutality and racial profiling?
It would be harder for me to find a friend who hasn’t been beaten up by the police. It’s a really common thing, and something that happened to me personally as a teenager. But when the police commit a crime on you, it’s hard to know who to tell. Most of us have just taken it on the chin and cracked on. It’s only a visible problem for the rest of the country once a line has been crossed.
As an issue, does it feel like it’s improving at all?
You go to any London council estates and ask them what is happening, the majority of people will tell you it is something they are going through or have been through. But nobody knows where to report it and nobody knows how to report it. It gets swept under the carpet, not just by the authorities, but even by yourself. You’re made to feel like something you did has caused this, but that is often not the case.
At one point in the video, you and your friends are chatting to a man who is completely engulfed in flames and doesn’t seem to realise it. What is the symbolism of that?
The guy on fire is a metaphor for being on the police’s radar. When you’re someone that is known by police—like you’ve been investigated for things or you’ve been to prison before—people say you’re a bit “hot”. The irony of that is, you never actually know when you’re being watched or monitored. The guy in the video, he just comes up to a group of us, we’re just having a chat, and then he goes up in flames, and walks off like nothing is happening. He is oblivious to the fact that this is how the police see him.
There is quite a powerful scene at the end too when a policeman is being arrested in full uniform.
When you see a policeman getting arrested, it raises questions. When a police officer commits crimes, who arrests them? When you’ve been battered by the police, you don’t really feel like you can tell the police about the police. You think you should let it go. I hope that image raises a question.
That guy could be guilty of anything, but because he’s in that uniform, it puts you in a different mindset. The person who is arresting him is actually my uncle, Stafford Scott. He campaigns a lot for equal rights and against injustice. Anything to do with people being abused by the police, he’s there. That’s why it was good to have him arresting the policeman in the video, because he doesn’t represent violence, he represents injustice.
I wrote an article about you for Noisey back in December...
Which I really liked by the way.
… Voicing my own frustrations about how it felt like you were capable of such incredible music—as evidenced by your freestyles—but then it often fails to shine through on your big chart singles. This was written before “Antwi” and “Liberation” but, do you personally feel like I had a point? Or was I chatting shit?
You know what it is, I’m capable of doing so many different things. There are so many different parts of me that care about different parts of my music. I really love writing big, big songs. But I also love doing things like Fire In The Booth. So I attack everything I am doing at the time with the same sword. That sword is: make sure it’s world class. If I’m writing a hit record, I want it to be world class. If I’m writing a fire in the booth, I want it to be the best Fire in the Booth.
If you look through all the freestyle series that we have in the UK... There’s the F64 on SBTV—I’ve made sure I have one of the best, if not the best F64. There’s Daily Duppy: I’m one of the best. Fire In The Booth: the best one. Behind Barz: the best one. I’m competitive on that front. But if I’m writing “Don’t Go” (2011 track with Josh Kumra) then I want it to compete with the biggest Coldplay records, you know?
That makes sense.
I get that different people like different things. But because of that, I’m not going to stop being myself. The bottom line is, as an artist, I feel like I have a certain amount of things I can say during my duration of being a writer, of being on this earth as a human being. I don’t want to die with anything left inside of me. So, I wanna make sure that when I’m dead and they close that casket, every idea I had is out. That is the cleanest way for an artist to live.
Do you have quite a lot of respect for the pop songwriting craft then?
Listen, there’s a rapper in America. His name is Grafh. Have you heard of him?
In my humble opinion, he is one of the best rappers I have ever heard. But nobody has heard of the guy, because he doesn’t make bangers. His rapping ability would outdo anybody in the world. But because he doesn’t make banging tunes or turn up music, nobody has heard of the guy. It upsets me. But it made me realise, you need those big songs.
Surely not everyone must survive on bangers?
Listen, look what happens when we lose an icon like Prince. When you look on iTunes, everyone floods and buys the biggest singles they ever put out. He put out classic albums, of course, but it will be “Purple Rain” that will be at number one. People love singles. It’s the way the world works. You’re gonna be remembered for your big songs and your accolades. Do you want to be a “platinum selling artist” or “possibly the best rapper in the world, but never got to prove it”? That’s how I look at it: when I’m finished, when I’m over, people are gonna think this guy done a lot.
That’s the second time you’ve mentioned dying. Do you think about your legacy a lot then?
Of course I do man. I’ve dedicated my life to this. I work at least 50-70 hours a week on music. This ain’t a job. I live for a living. It means a lot more to me than just stringing a few words together and making a rap song. This really is my life. I’m missing time with my family, I’m missing time having a life. So it needs to mean a lot to me.
In your famous Fire in the Booth freestyle, you spit the line “How much of my fans might just not buy my new stuff?” Is this idea – that some fans like your big singles and some like your all verse rap freestyles – something that plagues you?
One thousand percent. The problem is, people will love my last single “Antwi” because of the skill it displays. People love my Fire In The Booth for what it is. But if you put a Fire In The Booth on iTunes, that is never going to go to number one. If I put “Don’t Go” on iTunes, it’s gonna go number one.
I look at music and think: different people are always going to be with you for different reasons. I’m a massive fan of Versace, but I don’t like every single item of clothing they make. So I won’t buy it. But I am still an overall fan of what they do.
Do you think one day the two sides of what you do might come together and create some sort of uber-Wretch 32?
I suppose the day both sides come together is the day you become Bob Marley, Drake, Messi, Federer. The day I feel this may not happen will be the day I substitute myself off the pitch.
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