Jeffrey Boayke, author of Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & the Meaning of Grime, looks at how the musical genre of grime is shaping male identity.
Black Britishness runs through the central nervous system of British society. The impact of colonial explorations, alliances and affiliations runs deep, not simply in the migration narratives of Afro-Caribbean communities, but in the evolution of popular culture throughout the 20th century and beyond. Grime is the millennial embodiment of this fact. Steeped in Jamaican heritage, it provides a visible, audible footprint of the impact of black culture in UK society. Not least of all the proliferation of Jamaican patois in youth vernacular, in which Grime has played an instrumental role.
Anyone who has ever been a teenager understands the appeal of rebellion. It’s part of the socialisation that takes you away from the parallel nests of school and home, pushing boundaries in the quest for self-empowerment in those exciting years before your prefrontal cortex has worked out exactly where to live in your brain. For the millennial generation, Grime offers a safe space for anti-establishment raging against the machine; intrinsically energetic, angry, loud and danceable at the same time. It’s little surprise that it has emerged as a dominant sound of the festival circuit, inviting young people to let go their inhibitions and act the rudeboy/rudegyal to a scream-if-you-wanna-go-faster soundtrack. Breaking rules is cool. Grime is cool. And liking Grime is like breaking the rules. Cool.
The minute you start listening to grime, you’re plugging into a protest soundtrack. Grime emerged from the margins of social disenfranchisement, a music that in many ways was never meant to be, existing initially in a deeply underground rave scene, white label vinyl releases and illegal pirate radio. In its very existence it challenges dominant power structures, and in its millennial success, has started to upend them. Grime has unapologetically kicked its way into the mainstream consciousness and the kids in the house have welcomed the intrusion.
When Lethal Bizzle teaches Dame Judi Dench how to MC, when Stormzy takes up the first leg in the Grenfell Tower charity single, when Jme has a coffee with Jeremy Corbyn, when 31 million people click the Man’s Not Hot parody single in less than a week, when two Grime albums get nominated for a Mercury Music Prize in 2016 and one of them actually wins it, when a statue of Wiley almost gets built in Mile End Park, when Form 696 gets scrapped, finally encouraging live music venues to welcome Grime after years of obstruction and mistrust, it’s clear that black masculinity has gone through the fear barrier, beyond tolerable, past cool, and into the warm and fuzzy realm of rather-quite-loveable.
With its DIY, bootstrap origins and fierce entrepreneurship Grime can be read as a shining example of neoliberalism; self-empowerment through individual merits via competition. But it also operates as a deeply collegiate scene built of collaboration, shared creative energy and common values. If the results of the 2016 General Election are anything to go by, the selfie generation has leant away from the dull promises of the centre-right towards a far more liberal ideal, embodied by a Corbyn renaissance that came complete with a #Grime4Corbyn soundtrack. Arguably, Grime dances in that most rare of venn diagrams: socialism and neoliberalism, finding a comfortable balance between self-interest and open door tribalism.
For all its posturing, bravado and implicit (sometimes explicit) politicising, it can be easy to forget that Grime is essentially a lyrical art-form. Nowhere else do we get such a focused concentration of poetic energy, showcasing the MC as wordsmith. In many ways Grime is deeply Romantic with a capital R, adventurous and searching, exposing the turmoil of the inner. It. Also happens to be characterised by an inexhaustible wit; with wordplay, rhyme, punning and slippages of meaning that push language to thrilling limits round hairpin turns. Poetry is dead. Long live poetry.