To try to come up with a set definition of Black British culture would be difficult. The very idea of Black Britishness is relative. It relies on the intricacy of localities and waves of immigrant communities, melding into each other as they adapt to the limited institutional access given to them by the state. Jamaica was one of the first to pave the way for immigration of the global Black diaspora, creating new cultures and new identities. Black Britishness through the lens of the London experience can be seen by just getting on the bus in certain areas during peak school times — the 149 through Seven Sisters to Edmonton, 607 from Shepherds Bush to Hayes and the 333 from Tooting to Elephant and Castle, to name a few.
Grime was born in East London, the child of Garage, Dancehall and Drum and Bass. The genre in its entirety was a brand new sound. You could hear the influences which extended past the borders of Britain but racially reflected the rappers. The beats were intimidating, the sound industrial-like. Grime’s birth established for those who made it and those who listened something revolutionary in Britain. It cemented our presence in the UK as Black Britons. Our contributions couldn’t be denied and unlike those before Windrush, our histories and existence could no longer be erased.
Whilst the definitions are by no means set in stone, there is no denying Grime, with all of the attention that currently surrounds it, is a Black British art form. Born in the estates of East London, Grime lies at the intersection of race and class and in essence is the sound of working class Black immigrant communities. Some of the genre’s most prominent names include brothers Skepta & JME, born to Nigerian parents and brought up in Tottenham; Lethal Bizzle, from Walthamstow by way of Ghana; and Wiley, whose roots span Bow, Trinidad and Antigua. Grime is unquestionably a diasporic creation.
The newfound interest surrounding Grime, however, is one that turns a blind eye to race — arguably its most defining factor. The strained relationship Black communities have had with the police are alluded to, using “urban” as a racially coded language for Black, avoiding stating the obvious: Grime is a genre of music which is equally Black as it is British.
Historically in any press coverage of Grime, the genre is brushed away as a movement of young anarchists pushing an anti-establishment agenda. ID Magazine recently published a piece called “grime: the sound of young Britain now” in which the writer failed to give any recognition to Black Britain; rather, Grime and its artists “represent the frustration and optimism of the working class dream”. White writers like Hattie Collins who write about Grime repeatedly disregard Black experiences and base Grime’s existence solely on classism. However, working class white people do not share the same experiences as working class Black people. Working class White communities did not create Grime, Black ones did. Attributing the birth of Grime to the working class and the estates solely without mentioning race is reductionist and, as said by a tearful Azealia Banks, is a type of microaggression, otherwise referred to as “cultural smudging”. Collins calling Grime “the ultimate expression of British identity” is erasure at its finest. Grime is the telling of Black youth’s stories and an expression of Black British identity. You cannot speak about Grime whilst ignoring its transnational roots in the Caribbean and Africa. Grime was performed by Black immigrant youth and created in Black spaces, and tells the story of the Black British experience.
Communities of colour in the UK understand the dichotomy we’re placed in when it comes to Britishness and our ethnic origin. When we achieve a certain level of success in our respective fields, not unlike many other places of large diasporic communities, we reluctantly receive white validation and a comfortable, indisputable claim to Britishness in return. Mo Farah quickly becomes “British” instead of “Somali-born immigrant”; Amir Khan goes from “Bolton-born Muslim-Pakistani” to “Britain’s very own”. While previously emphasis was placed upon Grime’s blackness to insinuate rising knife crime and gang violence, due to its recent popularity Grime has now been rebranded, changing from “Black/Urban music” to simply “British”.
Grime wasn’t always viewed as “homegrown and proudly British”. Record labels refused to sign Grime artists for many years, leaving us to create our own spaces and distribute our own music. When party leaders and MPs were vilifying the genre for supposedly “glorifying gun culture and violence” in an evidently racially coded manner, it was clear that Grime wasn’t “British” enough. It certainly wasn’t “British” enough when now prominent rappers weren’t able to get through a whole set without police shutting the entire venue down. Need I remind us of the historical and transnational collective fear police and white people have had regarding Black people gathering together in large groups?
Lately we’ve seen the genre’s ability to link up with the wider Black diaspora, but Grime itself needs to be recognised in its own right as an entirely new genre with roots in the Caribbean, Africa and the Estates. Black music in a global context is diverse and now due to Grime slowly garnering attention we find ourselves asserting Grime’s cultural autonomy from Hip Hop and Black America. Grime is not “UK Hip Hop” – it never has been. Its roots in relation to its blackness exist in the Islands and the motherland.
Grime has been a way for Black British youth to gain access to British identity in a way that can’t be disputed. Its claustrophobic 140 bpm beats are the sound of disenfranchised black youth. To separate and remove Blackness from Grime erases our cultural contributions to this country and at the same time invalidates our experiences of being Black in Britain.
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Shereen Abyan is a writer based in Canada.
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