I was watching the Brits awards the other night and was surprised at the many nominations given to artistes in the UK hip-hop genre (known as Grime). For the first time, we are seeing Grime music brought into mainstream recognition. As a lifelong hip-hop fan, this is welcome news. But who are these guys on the Grime scene shaking things up?
I came to the UK nearly 10 years ago from Nigeria with a head full of American hip-hop music, but was very keen to understand the UK scene too. I am used to listening to rappers like Rakim, Nas, Mobb Deep, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg etc. I also preferred the darker version of the genre, which usually involves haunting stories from the gritty and unforgiving streets of inner city America. These tales fascinate me because I believe it is a direct result of historical racial injustices which have put young black men at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of the jail population. I believe poverty breeds criminality. So for me there is a social narrative in rap music which reflects the deep injustices, both historical and present, in the American society. As a social observer, hip-hop music is a huge resource for me.
When I first started sampling UK hip-hop, I watched videos of London-based rappers on YouTube, and I thought they delivered their lyrics in a weird accent. I couldn’t understand some of their slangs and thought to myself, these guys need to clean up their accents before they can be taken seriously. I dropped off and continued listening to US rappers. A few years later, I stumbled by accident on a Youtube video of a guy called Devlin, who is like the UK’s Eminem, white rapper with angry and clever lyrics. While I trawled through his videos, I came upon one which featured a rapper called Giggs. This is where my fascination with UK rap began. Giggs was a deep-voiced, soft-spoken young man with very powerful lyrics that reflected the harsh life in London’s estates. Giggs is from Peckham, one of the most deprived boroughs of London.
Over the next couple of years, whenever I was catching up on hip hop videos on YouTube, I always check my favourite UK rappers, from Giggs to Joe Black, Ratlin and others.
Then in 2015 I came across at the video of a guy called Stormzy (real name Michael Omari), a tall 22 year-old black man from South London. It was on a track called Shut up. A very unusual kind of video, due to its simplicity, shot in a park with a hand held camera, a small bluetooth speaker and surrounded by his friends. In the video, Stormzy wears a red adidas tracksuit and lays out his lyrics effortlessly to a haunting tune. When I saw this video in 2015, it had around 700,000 views on YouTube, now it has over 48 million!
Stormzy is 24 years old now and has bagged himself a couple of awards over the past 2 years. He was also nominated for the Best Breakthrough Act at the 2017 Brits Awards. He has been collaborating with many popular artistes as well and seems to be at the top of his game at the moment, with his album Gang Signs and Prayers gone straight to number one in the UK album charts this weekend!
Another name in Grime music making the headlines is Skepta (real name Joseph Adenuga). Skepta performed at the recent Brits awards and wowed crowds with his energetic track, Shut down. Skepta won the Mercury Prize in 2016 for his album Konnichiwa, the first Grime artiste to be recognised for this award. He won the BET awards for Best International Act – UK as well as many others. Grime at last, seems here to stay.
Many people write-off this genre of music as irrelevant and lacking in creativity. It’s only people who don’t get hip-hop that say this. These guys tell stories many don’t want to hear, I agree, but these stories are a reality for many in our society i.e. gang violence, drug trafficking and teenage murders. I consider these guys the messengers of a dark reality that we would rather sweep under the carpet. Drugs and gang warfare are a reality in many estates across London and all over the country, why pretend it’s not happening?
Many of these Grime artistes are surviving against all the odds, releasing albums independently of major record labels, using the power of social media (particularly YouTube and Twitter) to drive their audience. I am glad the UK society is finally giving these guys the recognition they deserve.