Wowfest went Grime in Toxteth for 2019 with Blue Siant, Dorcas Seb, Jude Yawson and Kayo Chingonyi, we sent Getintothis’ Mostyn Jones along and he sent us this report.
This year’s WowFest was another great series of events that brought major artists and writers to the city for packed out events that considered the state of the arts in the city and the nation as a whole.
But Writing on the Wall have also continued their commitment to putting on smaller and more specialised events, and their panel on the state of Grime brought together local and visiting experts for a look at how this young genre, born in London, continues to have relevance across the UK and the World.
Sitting in Toxteth’s Video Odyssey, surrounded by arcade machines and VHS tapes, local Grime artist Blue Saint kicked off the event with a poem; inviting panellists Jude Yawson and Kayo Chingonyi to do the same.
Soon it became apparent how appropriate a venue this was, Yawson and Chingonyi spoke of the importance of tapes in the early grime scene, both personally, and to the genre as a whole.
Their work was reflective, looking at their youth coinciding with the birth of a new form of music. Yawson lamented how many of those early recordings were now lost, and how significant the remaining ones are as cultural artefacts. He then posed the question ‘why are there no documentaries on the birth of Grime?’
The culture is still young in comparison with many other genres, but the subject the panel kept returning to was that now is an important moment for Grime; as it enters a kind of middle age and albums like Kano’s Made in the Manor start to look back at the state of things that have come.
It seems more important than ever that young fans and artists understand the heritage that they’re entering into. The other Liverpool-based artist on the panel, Dorcas Seb, noted how the lineage of Grime could be traced through the progression of other UK genres, how Punk and Ska bled together, influencing Garage which influenced Grime.
Though often this cross-pollination is not recognised by outsiders who would deny the legitimacy of Grime culture as something with artistic merit. That denial of the importance of Grime comes from misunderstanding and misrepresentation, Chingonyi pointed out, that to those who can’t empathise with Grime it can come across as hostile and aggressive because of its primacy. ‘But that primacy comes from a desire to express something.’
To those with no interest in the genre, they see this aggression as threatening, rather than the artistic release of someone who is under threat themselves. Chingonyi spoke of the importance of understanding another’s vantage point, that what sounds like a tirade of anger to one can to another sound like ‘a soulful shout, like something that needs to be regurgitated.’
This isn’t to say that the lyrical content of all Grime songs are beyond reproach by virtue of being an expression of catharsis, misogyny in lyrics was discussed and again the point of ageing was brought up.
The earliest MCs on the scene started as teenagers, and it was teenagers and young people who kept those scenes alive; many of the artists whose early work was rooted in teenage sexism are now reflecting on where that hate came from and how they’ve grown and learnt better.
But the way the scene venerates youthful energy, and the way that a type of ‘legitimacy’ remains important in the Grime scene, means that we again see that loss of continuity and heritage.
Can a genre continue to evolve if it can’t preserve its community, its legacy, and a connection to its elder icons who have escaped the pressurised conditions that powered their breakout hits?
There were many answers to these questions, Seb pointed to the need to champion the female voices in the scene; whose work can help expand the whole genre away from a reliance on adolescent bravado and allow the culture to grow ‘What kind of mind do you have if you don’t want someone to grow?’ she asks.
The panel was in agreement that there needs to be more of an effort to embrace the creative diversity within the genre. Media needs to see Grime in a certain light so that they can market it, and young people in the scene internalise that image.
They start to believe that you need to act a certain way or rap about certain things if you want to be a ‘real’ Grime artist, usually, a way that reflects the most regressive parts of the culture and further that misrepresentation.
‘You do a disservice to people if you don’t represent them fully,’ says Yawson, before pointing to ways that he has seen Grime culture nurturing communication and expression within its community, such as the work done in organisations like the Brixton soup kitchen.
Threats to the culture are numerous, and many of them are shared by artists and musicians of all genres. Grime venues in London have faced a campaign of closures just as many of Liverpool’s historic spaces have been taken away. This was worsened in the Grime community by factors like the discriminatory form 696, which was used to make spurious connections between criminal activity and artists in the Grime community.
A really great and necessary initiative …@stormzy announces #Merky Books writers’ prize winners. Stormzy says it aims to help young authors who are “being ignored or passed on” by major publishing outlets.https://t.co/yIvC1qn6sa
— Writing on the Wall (@wowfest) June 7, 2019
The wider issue of cuts to public services and the arts have also had a clear impact, the offshoot subgenre of Drill music has overtaken Grime as the most demonised form of expression, but Chingonyi points out the link between the rise of UK Drill and the closure of Youth centres across the most impoverished London Boroughs.
Those early memories of young kids standing in a circle and freestyling couldn’t have happened if they had no place to gather, youth centres and public spaces are vital in giving young people space to express themselves freely, and if those spaces are taken away then that need to be expressive will be more urgent and angry.
So does this mean that there’s now a need for Grime to be political? ‘Every genre has a political edge to it.’ Says Seb. And that’s true now more than ever, Blue Saint mentions the way that Grime artists were active in the run up to the election, and how they able to respond to the Grenfell disaster in both art and action.
Yawson, who edited and co-authored Stormzy’s recent memoir, tells us that when the singer used his platform at the Brit Awards to address Theresa May’s mishandling of the tragedy, the decision to do so was only made in a split second. In that moment of spontaneity, reacting to oppression, grief, and tragedy; there was a return again to that soulful shout of regurgitated rage.
Grime culture is at a crossroads where it must maintain links to its past and embrace the promise of a future driven by youthful energy, but still learning from its elder statesmen.
The event was attended by Grime fans from Liverpool, and the panellists talked about meeting lovers of the Genre across America, Asia, Africa, and Europe; and being surprised to see how those fans view the UK as a hub of creativity.
It’s vital now that as we approach the precipice of withdrawing from the world that we don’t lose this cultural force, and that we don’t allow this scene to be swept away.