Somewhere along the line, I became a bit of a UK Hip Hop pusher. I don’t know when that happened, but it was probably somewhere between hearing Mic Righteous’ ‘Fire in the Booth’ and getting into Lowkey. Sending long, detailed, link-heavy e-mails to friends who have expressed even the slightest bit of interest – in the small gaps they are given to respond – has become a favourite procrastination habit. Here’s why I think it all matters.
[A quick disclaimer should confirm that the hip hop I’m interested in the conscious – for lack of a better term – politically engaged and musically innovative acts generally associated with Global Faction and the People’s Army. Lowkey, Akala, Logic, English Frank and Mic Righteous are at the forefront of this for me, but obviously are not alone. If you know decent people I don’t mention who I should know about, please leave a comment.]
On one level, what works is that a group of talented artists are searching for original language to talk about important ideas. At it’s best, and here is my crude version of Deleuze, an attempt to ‘repeat’ – i.e. demonstrate the same passion and extremity taking place in a new event, rather than a step by step mimicking of the original event – the great social awakenings we’ve seen throughout history. This also comes with the allure of being able to make sweeping statements without having to provide 20 pages of references and explanatory notes. Akala can say “it’s not the money you make, YOU are the wealth”, it’s up to the listener to piece together what that means. You can have Lowkey talking about the illusion of money: “some will try to tell you it doesn’t grow on trees/I heard the saying said many times but they were wrong/if it doesn’t then tell me where do you get the paper from” without referring to David Graeber once. You can have Mic Righteous saying “No matter who it be on the other side of the computer screen/no one is perfect/only different between you and me/is the skin we’re in/and underneath we’re all equal” without a glint of irony. Obviously, all of this leaves some room for interpretation but in the current conditions of uncertainty and impotence, a little room for interpretation is a good thing.
For me, this means that the result is a radical departure from the tired, buzzworded liberal-speak or worn out communist terminology I’m used to on the left. While some have, in the most well meaning way, understood political hip hop as a tool for interesting the ‘yout’ in preconceived political ideologies, I think this ignores the potentiality creative possibilities it has. (Or, as Refused put it: Money buys the access – and we can’t pay the cost/ And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice?/We need new noise – new art for the real people).
In this way, it’s a great thing that this is coming at a time when most official political ideologies have either stopped being relevant or faded from view. By making immanent critique, whether in a global context or not, a picture of antagonism and frustration emerges that doesn’t fit particularly well with anything we know. While it certainly contains shards of communist, liberal, socialist and sometimes nationalist thought, these are the starting rather than the ending points. As much as I love Dead Prez, I think the importance of this becomes quite clear when you contrast the Maoist and Black Nationalist slogans that pepper their lyrics with the more heart-on-your-sleave lyrics in the UK scene. Mic Righteous is a particularly good example here. In ‘No More’ the sense of pain, anger and a sense of unease proceed directly, rather than mediated through terms like ‘class struggle’ which can, in fairness, make statements sound either tired or alienating: I get the feeling like we’re meant to broke/when it comes to making money we’re all mentally slow/maybe because we’re watching everything the telly is showin/my brothers locked behind bars they aren’t letting him go.
This is tied to a second element that makes the music important. Pierre Bordieu once wisely said that many political struggles are about how we define problems and that we should bear this in mind when talking about social suffering. That is to say, is a problem (like inequality for women or poverty) an incidental, unimportant and generally laughable feature of an otherwise perfect society, or is it a scar that demonstrates the fundamental injustice of our social system? The answer, of course, determines the appropriate response. In UK hip hop, the voice from the slums/end/manor/council estates which are traditionally mocked or disregarded in the media are put at the forefront, and their concerns are made central. As Owen Jones knows, ‘Chav-bashing’ has become the mainstream way to deal with Britain’s otherwise awkward structural inequality. You can watch grainy footage of ‘yobs’ from security cameras or tune in to see millionaire comedians degrade them, but beyond that they are largely ignored or interviewed strictly for the gag reel. In sharp contrast, English Frank, for example, makes these/his concerns central: “I tell it straight if we don’t do crime we’re below the breadline/we can’t feed our fucking babies let alone a phone line/then they tell we should be working, but there ain’t enough jobs…if you don’t have to live it it’s cool, if you have to live it it’s cruel/I wish I’d never had to live it at all/I’m white British trash, can’t afford british gas/then you’ve got the nerve to call us chavs cause we live in council flats.” UK Hip-hop defines these problems as central and structural, and I’m not inclined to disagree. This is the issue in Britain today, but for most on the left it’s easier to abandon the housing estates in lieu of the greener pastures of university campuses and trade union meetings. I’m not condemning this – it would be deeply hypocritical – but I imagine you know what I mean.
As a side note, what’s particularly moving about this is not just the emphasis on problems certain people would rather ignore, but the fact that, almost always, the artists in question express compassion, hope and positivity. It should make the patronizing feel uneasy and the snobbish feel ashamed. One of the highlights for me last year was to meet Mic Righteous, someone I would have crossed the street to avoid if I hadn’t heard him rap. I am a better person due to this music, and I doubt it’s just me.
Thirdly, there is the question of values. I’m pretty sure the left needs to talk about values more. For far too long ‘values’ has become synonymous with Bible-bashing, traditionalist, draconian and homophobic garbage. But, for me and I think for potentially a lot of people, values like ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ are galvanizing ideas that let us rethink our situation from an abstract point. This is something where UK hip hop also excels. Whether it’s the abstract ‘Equality’ spoken about by Logic or Lowkey’s belief in personal integrity, this is one place where values get the airtime they deserve. If the left don’t talk about the power of abstract ideas – while of course seeking to implement them at the same time – they will fail to overcome cycnicism and genuinely inspire. As long as justice means an impartial judge – though make no mistake, this would be a good start – these concepts are limited. By repeating them in a way that’s not tethered to this, but rather sees them as a distant aspiration rather than a limiting doctrine, they might finally come out of their cage. Again, it’s new noise for the real people. More importantly, UK hip hop does this in a way that connects with people who might otherwise find Hardt and Negri leave them a bit cold.
I don’t by any means think the genre is without it’s problems. Certainly, derogatory and bigoted language can slip in (although a lot less than the liberal in you thinks) and there are unresolved questions about how the left should embrace ‘masculinity as resistance’. I hope to address these further at a later date, but thought this would make a good start in the mean time.