When I was younger, I struggled to see the connection between music and politics. I always loved both: politics was what I did when I was trying to learn how the world worked and how we could make it better; music was what I did in my down-time, when I was trying to unwind. It wasn’t until I attended Goldsmiths College that these two loves came together, as inspirational lecturers, writers and fellow students taught me how the two had been inextricably linked in some of the most exciting political moments in history.
It was after this awakening that I realised I had completely missed the connections between music and politics in my everyday life, as well as in my political activity. As an activist involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigning since I was a teen, I had somehow overlooked – or underheard – the sounds which surrounded me in all my formative protesting experiences. I grew up with Love Music Hate Racism, loud and proud on the front page of the NME, and this had bolstered my foundational anti-racist feelings. At my first anti-fascist protest in Walsall in 2011, there was Ska music and Reggae blasting out through the speakers. On our frequent protests to shut down detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, a bassy soundsystem and people playing pots and pans sound-tracked our march to the gates. In 2015, a migrant-led march through the Jungle camp in Calais made use of drums and a boombox on the back of a lorry, creating the most cheerful and hopeful atmosphere I ever saw in my trips to the camp, and contributing to a wave of publicity that helped fund the camp’s amenities for a little longer.
A soundsystem soundtracking the march to protest against immigration detention outside Yarl’s Wood detention centre, 2016, photo credit: Kate Bradley
By placing culture at the heart of protest, anti-racist activists through recent history have woven pleasure and excitement into huge numbers of people’s memories and experiences of resistance. Music can turn protests from a necessary but disheartening show of discontent into a carnival, an attractive day out, and a fond memory for years to come. Music can transform our anger about injustice into joy and, temporarily, a feeling of unity that keeps us believing in the possibility of a better world.
This close relationship between recent anti-racist activism and popular music is what inspired me to write my dissertation for my Masters at Goldsmiths on grime music. Grime is an energetic form of electronic dance music pioneered by young, working-class black men and women, principally from London. Dan Hancox (2018) traces grime’s beginning back to 2003, where its sound emerged in a scene which borrowed rhythms and sounds from other culturally hybridised UK genres: jungle, garage, two-step, drum ‘n’ bass and dancehall, played under samples of “the noise of modern London captured in ringtones, car alarms, bleeps and crashes” (Du Noyer 2009), and rapped over by MCs. Since then, grime has taken a long journey into the mainstream, through moral panics about its links to gang culture, clashes with the Metropolitan police’s Form 696, which has been used to shut down grime artists’ tours (see Street 2012 for more), and finally, its mainstreaming through artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, Nadia Rose and Stormzy.
Grime caught my attention as a good focus of study because of its rebellious spirit, its roots very near to where I was living and studying, and its surprisingly frequent use in political contexts. In Hold Tight, an excellent and very readable book on grime, Jeremy Boakye (2017) describes Grime as the Windrush generation’s “disobedient grandchild, running amok and refusing to follow the rules”, full to the brim with “confrontational energy that puts it in alignment with agitprop protest music”. You only have to listen to a few grime artists to hear the lyrical theme of anti-authoritarian iconoclasm which permeates through the genre, even in cases where the artists do not consider themselves political. My favourite example is from AJ Tracey’s ‘Blacked Out’:
I ain’t really trying to be political;
I got a impact and it’s physical.
I am not a role model rudeboy,
don’t follow me, and don’t hang from my lyrical.
Even though AJ asks that you don’t treat him as a “role model rudeboy”, the song carries the archetypal message of grime, imploring you to be your own person, to defy established norms. There are echoes of the same message in Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’, Nadia Rose’s ‘Skwod’ and Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’, some of grime’s biggest tracks, and perhaps it’s this which aligns it with resistance movements, albeit not unproblematically (I will return to this).
I do think AJ has a point about grime being a ‘physical’ genre. In my research, I steered as clear as I could of borderline-racist arguments about the physicality of ‘black music’, which barely disguise an urge to see all cultural products made by black people as irrational and primitive. (For more on this, Mark Abel’s criticisms of the term ‘black music’ in Groove make a very compelling argument.) Nevertheless, grime’s role as a form of dance music – “the kind of music you move to”, as one of my interviewees called it – gives it a particular power in protest, where agitation and frustration can easily be turned into pleasure and a shared pulse by an affective sleight of hand: a repetitive dance beat, a catchy hook, humorous lyrics, and an antagonistic chorus everyone can sing along to.
A great example of this affective transformation happened in 2010 in London, where grime made its first famous outing as a protest music. The music restored some movement and pleasure to a tightly-packed, kettled crowd of students who had turned up in central London to demonstrate their fury at the introduction of £9,000 university tuition fees. Luckily for us, grime has emerged in the same century as mobile phone cameras, so there’s a video of the scene: a group of angry young people gather, jostling and shouting and chanting “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!” Then, the whole mood changes: ‘Next Hype’ by Tempa T begins to play over a soundsystem. Suddenly everyone’s dancing, smiling, re-energised. Alexander Billet (2018) describes it: when grime started to play, “the timbre and feel of the demonstration changed. […] Demonstrators shattered the well-mannered pomp of central London”. The protesters didn’t win that day, but it was exciting all the same, and there’s a whole generation of activists and campaigners for whom that was their most memorable protest. This was largely due to the police repression, but the memory of the music serves as some light relief, and as a reminder that there can be satisfaction in even the most stressful demonstrations.
A similar moment happened at a protest I attended with about 400 other people in Croydon in May 2017, where grime was used to wonderful effect in a successful anti-fascist protest against the far-right anti-migrant group the South East Alliance (SEA). The protests took place outside Lunar House, the UK’s centre for border policing, which made it all the more important to win a symbolic victory over the anti-immigrant protesters. I decided to take this as the basis for my research, in which I asked: what did grime music do to this protest, and what did this protest do to grime? I spoke to five people who had attended the protest, I watched and analysed videos, and I collected quotes from news sources that had interviewed protestors on the day. My answers were resounding: Grime, particularly Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ and Nadia Rose’s ‘Skwod’, transformed the day from a fractious and nerve-wracking show of anger against racism and Islamophobia into a joyous celebration of migrant rights and grassroots working-class culture in all its diversity. The self-consciously multicultural music drowned out the anti-immigrant speeches of the small SEA turnout, a very fitting counter-voice to the desire for homogenisation in the SEA’s political rhetoric. At pivotal moments of the demonstration, when people could have bled away or lost their nerve in facing down the fascist march, grime came in to give the protesters an energy boost and a reminder of the value of cultural hybridisation.
My favourite moment of the day was caught on camera, when a line of protestors blocking the SEA’s march to Lunar House were backed by a soundsystem, cycled in on a bike, playing ‘Shutdown’ at full volume. Like in the video of the student protests in 2010, once the song is recognised, the crowd’s chanting and nervousness suddenly turn to laughter, cheering and dancing. The police who are trying to break the line are driven back for another few minutes by the sheer wave of energy they’re faced with. A quick zoom-in on the all-white faces of the SEA demonstrators at 2:00 tells you exactly how the crowd’s pleasure made the anti-immigrant side feel. Grime transformed the protest from an unfamiliar and quite stressful experience into, as one participant put it, “the kind of crowded space you’d choose to be in on a Saturday night”, and in the process, linked the enjoyment of grime to a wider common-sense anti-racist politics. To have fun on that day, you had to be on our side of the police line.
In political movements, ‘cultural’ questions often become sidelined as we focus on the logistics of demonstrations, discussion meetings, protest activities, and direct support of those who have suffered injustices. Activists put hours of time into planning events, fundraising, running publicity campaigns and protesting, and in the process we can forget that what makes a political movement persuasive and memorable often isn’t the correctness of its politics, or the smoothness of its execution, but the feelings of pleasure, unity and hope that it inspires. This is how movements like Rock Against Racism managed to move mountains of political ground; not simply because they were fighting for justice, but because they were capable of drawing new people in, opening up the possibility to form new friendships and communities as demographics met through their shared love of music. As Dave Randall puts it in Sound System: “Political struggles are sometimes fought out on impromptu dancefloors, and won or lost according to who has the best tunes”.
I came away from my research enthused at the possibility of Grime as a new basis of anti-racist culture. But it’s a genre of contradictions, like so many others. In today’s intersectionally-minded left, grime can be an uneasy fit, since it requires you to overlook the sexism that runs through many of its lyrics, and to look past what Paul Gilroy (2013) calls the “neoliberal thematic of uplift [and] self-realisation” that implies the genre isn’t quite as radical as it can feel at times. Yet, my research suggested that the combination of music and protest can bring the more emancipatory elements of a genre to the fore. Where Skepta might be seen as guilty of the neoliberal individualism that Gilroy criticises, the protesters in Croydon mobilised Skepta’s articulation of “not playing by the norms”, as one of my interviewees described it, for more collective ends, transforming the song’s meaning as well as the protest’s atmosphere.
Nevertheless, all ground-breaking musical genres have a shelf-life. We’re well into grime’s second generation, and who knows how long it will remain offensive to all the right people? If Rock Against Racism taught us anything, it’s to remember that music and politics’ passionate romance can be hugely transformative, but also pass quite quickly into cliché and conservatism. I believe our job is to love it and to use it while we can, and then to look to the future for what’s next – and how we can be a part of it, shape it, and shape society in the process.
Kate Bradley is a Masters graduate of Goldsmiths College in Human Rights, Culture and Social Justice. She has written on politics and the arts for various publications, including Red Wedge, Red Pepper and rs21.
Abel, M., 2015. Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time. Haymarket Books, Chicago.
Billet, A., 2018. ‘Shake the City: Experimental Theses on Space + Time, Music + Crisis’. Red Wedge 40–45.
Boakye, J., 2017. Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime. Influx, London.
Du Noyer, P., 2009. In the City: A Celebration of London Music. London: Random House.
Gilroy, P., 2013. ‘“… We Got to Get Over Before We Go Under …”: Fragments for a History of Black Vernacular Neoliberalism’. New Formations 23–38.
Hancox, D., 2018. Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. William Collins, London.
Randall, D., 2017. Sound System: The Political Power of Music. Pluto Press, London.
Street, J., 2012. ‘From Gigs to Giggs: politics, law and live music’. Social Semiotics 22, 575–585.