exploring the unlikely love affair between grime and jeremy corbyn
Author and journalist Simon Reynolds traces grime's evolution from Blair's nightmare to falling in love with Jeremy Corbyn.
Photography Olivia Rose
This article originally appeared in The Sounding Off Issue, no. 350, Winter 2017.
The emergence of grime and the improbable rise of Jeremy Corbyn are among the few truly promising things to come out of Britain during the 21st century so far. Until this year I would never have dreamed that these two phenomena would converge. Seeing Jeremy and Stormzy in a clinch at the GQ Awards, reading tweets from Novelist about how the mandem need JC's leadership -- these chalk--and--cheese collisions contribute as much to the feeling of unreality that suffuses 2017 as anything Trump has done. Of course, the unlikely love affair between grime and Corbyn is a beautiful dream rather than the waking nightmare of American politics. But it still has an air of deep implausibility -- it's an upshot that nobody saw coming.
One reason I find it disorienting is that I've always associated grime with New Labour. Remember how Margaret Thatcher described Tony Blair as her greatest achievement? What she meant was that his enterprise--friendly version of Labour extended the post-socialist era, inaugurated by her 1979 landslide, into the 21st century. "Thatcherism is all we've known, our normal," the MC Maxta has said. "Our normal" is a colloquial translation of the late Mark Fisher's concept of "capitalist realism": the idea that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than an alternative to capitalism. The world is as it only can be -- so get real, and deal with it.
Capitalist--realist to the core, grime in its deepest essence has always been fuelled by hyper--competitive individualism, partly soaked up from the ambient political culture of the New Labour era, but also assimilated from American rap, whose stars on the eve of the new millennium were forming corporate dynasties and diversifying across all media formats.
A go--it--alone, make--it--big attitude -- not so much apolitical as anti--political -- still permeates grime's actual lyrics, as opposed to the public statements of its leading figures. Skepta expresses distrust of authority and professionalised politricks on Konnichiwa with lines like "Nobody's votin' for your corrupted agenda" and "We don't listen to no politician." On Work, Skepta's brother JME propounds the idea that "hard work pays off", telling his followers, "the harder you work the faster you'll get what you wanna get."
"Of course, the unlikely love affair between grime and Corbyn is a beautiful dream rather than the waking nightmare of American politics. But it still has an air of deep implausibility -- it's an upshot that nobody saw coming."
JME's quip about how the only day he doesn't work is "the 30th of February" is a very American mentality. "The thirst to be first" – his brilliant phrase from Taking Over – actually sounds like the title of a motivational business book of the kind that crowd American non--fiction bestseller lists. The term "wasteman", which JME often uses to diss haters, fits with a Protestant work ethic view of the individual life as an enterprise in which it would be sacrilegious not to invest all of your energy.
Rooted in Protestantism, various forms of positive thinking and self--realisation have become the true American religion. Trump is literally a disciple of the most famous of the positivity prophets: Norman Vincent Peale was his pastor and officiated his first wedding. Dubbed "magical voluntarism" by the radical psychologist David Smail, this kind of thinking –"if you will it, it will happen" – runs through grime (think Riko & Target's classic Chosen One) as well as through that strain of 21st century self--empowerment pop exemplified by Katy Perry's Firework. You find it in best--selling self--help books like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and in movies like Silver Linings Playbook.
Positive thinking/magical voluntarism is the self--justifying credo of the two percent and of two--percent--wannabes. It's a winners--take--all worldview in which those who fail are to blame because they lacked the self--belief and the ruthless drive to make it. Conveniently airbrushed out of the picture is the reality that the contest takes place on a non--level playing field: the game is rigged from the start, with most competitors handicapped. Corbynism is not only a rejection of such social injustice, it further casts doubt on the very idea that constant struggle is how life should be led.
Given grime's nothing's--going--to--stop--me outlook and the entrepreneurial flair of its leading figures, it really would make better sense for grime to have a crush on Chuka Umunna than JC. Not only does the former Shadow Business Secretary share African ancestry with so many top MCs, but this sharp--dressed South Londoner loved jungle and UK garage and was actually a DJ. But it's really Umunna's credo of aspiration that chimes with grime's values. He's talked about how Labour should be a party "on the side of those who are doing well", and how there's nothing wrong with wanting to be a millionaire.
Compare that with Corbyn, who only ever makes the most cursory comments about the role of business in British life, barely attempting to hide his lack of interest and outright distaste for the notion of the "job creator". In this Old Labour tradition, working for the state or a non--profit organisation is a higher calling than business. That's why Corbyn's core constituency are dedicated public servants: teachers, nurses, social workers and so forth. The public sector, for the Old Labour mindset, is always something that can do with further expansion. Nationalisation is a righteous thing.
Another public thing that Corbyn loves is transport. He is a committed user of trains and buses wherever possible. It makes for a stark contrast with a grime car--ownership anthem like Meridian's German Whip. Like many Corbyn converts, the deal for me was sealed by the famous photo of him on a night bus during the first leadership campaign. Snapped by a fellow passenger, the picture captured a dead--on--his--feet Corbyn strap--hanging after a hard day's speechifying. Although taken without its subject's knowledge, the pic felt like a belated and pointed rebuke to Thatcher's ancient comment about how whenever she saw a grown man on public transport she thought of him as a loser, because he didn't own a car. The photo seemed to confirm JC's unimpeachable integrity, his principled consistency – something that clearly resonates with the grime community, who particularly respect Corbyn's unwavering commitments to racial equality (that iconic 80s photo of him protesting outside the South African embassy) and a non--interventionist foreign policy. A totally--knackered potential leader of a major political party could have been forgiven for splashing out on a cab, but once again the self--described "parsimonious MP", the chap with the lowest expenses claim in the entire House of Commons, was walking it (or public--transporting it) like he talked it. The image was echoed in the later, much--disputed video of Corbyn roughing it on the floor of an overcrowded Virgin train. That was a gauntlet thrown down to Richard Branson, a symbol of the kind of private (and privatising) enterprise that Corbyn disdains.
The feeling is mutual. Beyond the specific anathema of his policy ideas, flamboyant big--spending tycoons like Branson have a cultural antipathy to Corbyn's brand of left wing puritanism, which runs deep in the British socialist tradition and is rooted less in Marxism than in Methodism. From his love of simple pastimes like tending his allotment and making jam, to his virtual teetotalism and plainness of dress, to his pacifism and republicanism, there's a direct line back to original Puritans like the Quakers. And again it's a jarringly odd fit with grime, which is nothing if not a martial artform, all gladiatorial ego battles and alpha--male swagger.
Yes, grime values authenticity, which Corbyn has in spades, but it also values charisma and flow. As a verbal performer, Corbyn's cadences are stilted and earnest: there's simply no music in his speeches. But that emphasis on content over form is another facet of his puritanism. He has no time for the rhetorical arts and the entire theatrical side of politics.
Yet paradoxically it's Corbyn's very lack of slick showmanship that has won over the grime generation and youth generally. Corbyn "isn't all glitz and glamour", Akala told The Guardian approvingly, while Novelist enthuses about his "decency". Why has a genre based around self--aggrandisement and being larger--than--life embraced someone so undramatic and low--key? Is it just that he reminds grime MCs and grime fans of that one kindly and dedicated teacher who took an interest in them?
Grime so far has run on the same kind of dog--eat--dog energies celebrated overtly in American rap and covertly in a genre of Hollywood movies that includes The Wolf Of Wall Street and American Hustle (morality tales undercut by the charismatic vigour of the bad guys). For clues to a shift in values that would help explain the genre's embrace of Corbyn, I looked to the work of Stormzy. Here you see a strange intermingling of the NuLab--era grime psychology with an emotionalism that aligns with Corbyn's "kinder, gentler" politics and vision of a caring society. From the title on down, Gang Signs & Prayer is an uneasy blend of bangers and ballads, brash boastfulness and gruff mawkishness, with Stormzy oscillating between self--as--fortress invincibility and unprotected vulnerability.
That mixture of independence and neediness was evident right from the start of Stormzy's career. Take 2014's Dreamer's Disease EP. The title appears to come from the New Radicals song You Get What You Give. A number five hit in the UK in 1998, the song is overtly anti-corporate, an anthem of embattled but defiant optimism with a video set in an American shopping mall that gets trashed by gleeful kids. Singer Gregg Alexander counselled resilience in the face of an unfair world: "Wake up kids / we've got the dreamers disease... don't give up / you've got a reason to live."
"Who's gonna catch me when I fall? Who's gonna comfort me when my back's against the wall? If you ever feel under attack I'll help you through the storm." - Stormzy
Cueing off the song's idea of music as salvation – as well the more familiar idea of a music career as a ticket out of the ghetto -- Stormzy flits throughout the EP between the usual bluster about how he and his crew are destined to make it because they're hungrier than anyone else in grime, and unusual for the genre admissions of weakness and insecurity. Stormzy's mixed feelings about the fame--quest parallels the academic Lauren Berlant's concept of "cruel optimism", which describes delusory hopes that do more harm than good ultimately. In the title track the MC talks about the dreamer's disease as the thing that "keeps me alive", but also that is "gonna kill me".
Storm Trooper recalls Rihanna's Umbrella. "Who's gonna catch me when I fall? / Who's gonna comfort me when my back's against the wall?" Stormzy wonders, then offers his lover (or perhaps fellow crew member) mutual support in a world beset by external stress: "If you ever feel under attack ... I'll help you through the storm / I'll be a storm trooper." There's a glimpse here perhaps of a larger solidarity, an expanded "us": a society that lets no one slip through the safety net.
It's at once touching and disconcerting to read the recent testimonials from grime MCs celebrating Corbyn's success and urging their fans to stay politically engaged. Strip away the names and read the comments blind, and you could imagine them being uttered by librarians, counsellors, youth centre administrators and so forth. It's a rather colourless language of opportunity, diversification, resources, representation, empowerment... that couldn't be further from the intoxicating bravado of the MC's actual lyrics.
It's like all the swaggering ego--mania has dissolved, revealing the unexpected secret truth of the genre to be kindly hearts pulsing with social democratic longings. Perhaps the surrounding social fabric had simply gotten so frayed and the non--scene civilians they knew so afraid about the future, that grime MCs could no longer sustain the motor illusion of fighting to become one of the winners. Perhaps the longest period in which pop culture has been dominated by the fantasy of stardom as salvation -- the nu--glam 21st century -- has finally started to crumble. Maybe it's time to dream collectively again, imagine a kind of victory that condemns no one to be a loser. Who better to embody that shift than a leader who never wanted to lead, a man who has turned anti--charisma into an improbable form of glamour?