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Racism, Regions and the Rich: Is Grime Being Gentrified?

As Grime gains mainstream recognition, has it become another form of cultural appropriation?

19th Jan 2017

Image Credit: Lily Mercer

2016 was a year in which many aspects of the culture secured hard Ls, but grime music was not one of them.

Grime has experienced a resurgence like no other. There has been an explosion of talented producers, MC’s and collectives taking over the scene. With a growing number of grime artists topping the bills of renowned festivals (Stormzy will be moving through Coachella in April with his Adidas tracksuit and iPhone 2) and Skepta winning the hallowed Mercury Prize for 2016, it is becoming evident that grime is being accepted by the mainstream music industry.

Although Grime is benefiting from this mainstream acceptance, it is clear that it does not need this acceptance to thrive. When grime first emerged, labels rejected the sound, forcing artists to go underground. This independence has become a defining characteristic of the genre, and formed the springboard for its backbone of rebellion. In the face of growing popularity, many grime artists are choosing to stay independent, funding their own tours, relying on social media and streaming services like SoundCloud to build a following. This strategy has created a tightly knit community, that at times can seem impenetrable. However, as the number of people around the globe becoming involved with grime grows exponentially, the scene has been shrouded with skepticism over the authenticity and validity of this newfound hype.

A Post Racial Era?

“Came a long way from when whites never used to mix with blacks, now my white niggas and my black mates, we got the game on smash” - Skepta, Man

In contrast to America’s polarising relationship with race, London in recent years has fostered an attitude where race is not considered a factor in the ability of an individual to participate in a cultural movement. Of course, Grime was started by a collective of Londoners who were predominantly of black heritage, but grime’s origins from Garage music lay the foundation for acceptance within the genre. High profile champions of the sound like Devlin, Toddla T, Slimzee and radio presenter Charlie Sloth also highlight that the colour of an individuals skin is not necessarily a barrier. Lately, an examination of the diverse colour spectrum of attendees of grime gigs just goes to show the genre’s ever growing diversity. However, this attitude may be the case for London, which has always been one of the most diverse cities in the world, but cannot necessarily be said for other UK cities, for all parties involved.

Location, Location, Location

In the past, grime was fiercely territorial, where being from the wrong side of London could mean credibility would come under scrutiny. The pilgrimage that artists made between East and North London for collaborations, radio plays and studio sessions forced them into potentially dangerous situations where they were an unfamiliar face in someone else’s ends. However as the popularity of Grime grew, that began to change. Even in Greater London, the presence of grime could be felt growing up. It was normal to see someone blasting the Windows or Pingu Riddim on their Sony Ericsson while their mate spat out a hot 16.

“Yo bro! Where you from? What, you’re not from the borough, you’re not from the area, you’re not from the ends…” - Bunzi D, Amina, & Dynamic M - Are You Really From Da Endz

In the past decade, we are seeing evidence of non-London based MCs prove their worth. e.g. Shogun (near Glasgow), Kannan (Sheffield), Jaykae (Birmingham) and Mez (Nottingham). Although it feels like there is an endless stream of Vice documentaries highlighting MC’s with questionable flows in unsuspecting parts of the country, it’s safe to say grime is being seen as a UK ting.

But do non-UK MCs have what it takes to face off? Toronto’s Tre Mission has come under heavy scrutiny, but with appearances on SB-TV and collaborations with the OG of grime Wiley, it can be hard to argue his lack of credibility. Of course, Toronto and London share many cultural similarities, due to the influence of Caribbean culture in both cities, so grime could potentially be a natural step for the Canadian hub. Of course, there is growing evidence that some of the biggest grime enthusiasts in recent times are outside of the UK. In a recent interview with GQ, AJ Tracey spoke of going to Portugal to perform and of being unable to communicate with anyone due to the language barrier. Yet the crowd still knew every word of his bars.

Appreciation or Appropriation?

However, considering the significance of grime's inner city roots, the enthusiasm shown by those from more privileged backgrounds can be perceived as disingenuous, or as following the hype. Birthed from bootleg versions of Fruity Loop 3 in council estates and frenzied broadcasts from pirate radio stations, the juxtaposition between this world and that of middle/upper class comfort can seem stark. Grime comes from people who were disillusioned with society, effectively being ignored by those who ran the country. It stems from a struggle, something that is true for almost all music genres with a heavy black influence. But where does cultural appreciation stop and appropriation begin? Is Drake, who comes from a middle-class Canadian home only given a pass on his faux-roadman antics because he is black? Is a working-class white guy from Hackney more ‘authentic’ than a middle class black boy from Surrey? The lines between race and class within the UK are frequently blurred, and the answer to these questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. More often, the skepticism comes not from the demographic of these new grime enthusiasts, but from people who claim to have been fans since day one, which is obviously not the case. Owning a pair of Adidas creps, calling your friends ‘mandem’ and knowing all the words to “Shutdown” does not mean you love grime. Regardless, that has not stopped bandwagon jumpers from fully indulging in this roadman tracksuit mafia aesthetic, and naturally where the hype goes, the businesses follow eager to make a quick buck. With Hypebeast writing articles on 7 essential pieces to achieve the roadman look, US rappers arguing about who discovered Stone Island first and collaborations between high fashion and streetwear labels at an all time high, it’s never been more popular to dress like yutes tearing up some wings outside of Rooster's Hut chicken shop in Peckham.

“The very DNA of grime is anti-establishment, it doesn’t matter who plays it, or who consumes it, the message is in the music.” - DJ Semtex

Grime is constantly compared to Punk, as both are music forms that were not taken seriously by the masses in their infancies, and formed messages that were big middle fingers to the people at the top. This rebellion is something that resonates with many listeners. Naturally, with the heavy prevalence of social media partnered with the instant ability to share, Grime is no longer limited to it’s original audience, and has found fans from all walks of life. However, whatever your background, it is important to remember the roots of this music movement, and not to treat it as the latest trend to channel at Glastonbury this year. Recognise that the music originated and will always remain in the streets.

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