Watching The Riots
"Black culture in this country has had a huge contribution, on our music and, a whole range of cultural ways…" My heart sank as I watched Owen Jones attempt to take to task an apoplectic and ill-informed David Starkey doing a fantastic impression of a racist on Newsnight this week as they discussed the London riots. Grateful as I was for the gesture, Jones's inability to think quickly of an effective and undeniably long list of positive contributions black culture has made in Britain was almost as sad as Starkey's shrieks of "Rap? You glorify rap?!"
In September 2007 I was working on the opening performance of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre - a desperately needed arts center in the heart of Tottenham dedicated to diversity, built by architect David Adjaye to commemorate the late Tottenham MP and community leader Bernie Grant. My daring boss tried to push the name of the devised piece of musical theatre created by a cast of 35 young people with London's finest directors, rappers, vocalists and songwriters past the board. We promptly had to do damage limitation on thousands of flyers and "RIOT" became "GRIOT". Her hopes to transform the negative connotations of the history of that word in that area associated with that MP from violence to joy and creativity were quickly dashed. The performance was a success as were many of our creative projects dedicated to diversity and cross-artform collaboration, but less than a year later most of us were made redundant. The official line to the press was that we lost our funding. The real story was much more heartbreaking, as issues of governance, ulterior motives and financial mismanagement reduced the dreams we worked ourselves to the bone for to virtually nothing in under a year. Three years later and Tottenham was once again on fire.
I watched last week's events unfold to a soundtrack of Watch The Throne, Jay Z and Kanye West's new collaborative album released in the same time frame as the riots. My initital reaction was utter revulsion, as on first listen I picked up on talk of watches, cars and shoes - themes of materialism, a word hurled at the looters of London like mud. Several listens later and I stand on the opposite side of that fence, but also with a greater understanding for the politicians, historians and anyone else whose limited perception of hip hop is that of a superficial, dark and frightening caricature. Subtlety can be hard to pick out on a first listen, even with open ears.
Starkey's issues with the language of urban youth culture provided a sharp reminder that in Britain, a country with shockingly low social mobility, class is still a huge issue. In the US things are different, and money talks much louder than "the right" pronunciation, lineage and schooling - it generally brings with it a level of acceptance harder to obtain on these shores. I am privately educated (as with David Lammy when I speak you might not know my origin with your eyes closed), but that made little difference in my time as an arts fundraiser as I was probed by the well-to-do for information about my presumed absent black father or possible adoption, neither of which was the case.
Watch The Throne certainly has the familiar and almost obligatory sprinkling of club tracks and boastful lux-life references which help guarantee its success on US radio, but a more careful listen reveals a tale of the American dream. Jay Z is still talking about how he has escaped a poor upbringing, absentee father and dealing crack, whilst Kanye is still talking about the difficult effects his hard won superstar life has had on him (in particular his current pre-occupation with being disliked and labeled a racist), but that he's still fighting for it. Hiding or layering the depth of meaning is an intentional device rappers often apply, but many of this album's underlying themes are overtly aspirational -
"The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners
I got my liberty chopping grams up
Street justice, I pray God understands us
I pledge allegiance to all the scramblers
This is the star spangled banner" - Jay-Z (Made in America)
At the end of 2009 Matthew Herbert remarked to Paul Morley in the Guardian that it would be difficult to tell what was happening in the world through listening to pop music over the past decade. That might be true of pop music but that's not exactly the case with much of hip hop and grime. They both come littered with references to popular culture placing them explicitly in time, and they are also often the autobiographical experiences of the writer. This is the political voice of many young people, positive or negative, it is a view of the world through their eyes and mouths. The tired argument so often made that hip hop is causing violence is quite frankly arse about face, since songwriting generally involves finding inspiration in what you know - the music is the product of experience not the other way round. Apparently because it's not written up in a shiny report (Standard English of course) it cost a shady quango thousands to produce it's not worth listening to seriously.
Whilst I take issue with the way the riots and associated issues are being dealt with by our government and much of the media, it has made one thing abundantly clear to me. We are in dire need of a "British Dream". The inspirational American ethos, the very benchmark of their culture, that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth" sounds pretty good. Ours might need to be a bit more cynical with clauses regarding crippling humility and the weather, but surely anything's better than "The Big Society" - not even David Cameron's old pal Rhymefest could write a song about that.