Saturday, 19 February 2011

Gimme Some More of That Black Stuff

Will Gompertz, the gormless looking BBC's Arts Editor, ran a report on Tuesday's 10 O'clock News about Tinie Tempah and his urban music fraternity winning big at this week's BRIT Awards ceremony. The report was as much about a middle aged cum middle-class white man like Gompertz trying to make sense of how the very people he ordinarily crosses the street to avoid are now making the most popular and viable types of music white kids are currently bopping to. It must seem bizarre and totally unreal for Gompertz to comprehend how this cultural phenomenon took shape. In a parallel universe Moira Stuart will have done the same report only this time focussing on how black kids are abandoning traditional urban music in favour of rocking to Cradle of Filth records.

Truth is that British urban music is absolutely a part of current mainstream youth culture. Tinie Tempah cuts a modern day Uncle Tom figure, leased out to bland pop acts like JLS and Ellie Goulding in order to provide rap vignettes on their sugar-coated pop confections. Even Jessie J's current number 1 single Price Tag features some black rapper called B.o.B who provides 30 seconds of nonsensical rhymes to accompany Jessie's crap lyrics about the frivolous nature of money and what we really need in life is derivative pop music that makes us want to jig. It's hard to believe that not so long ago major UK radio stations would edit out 'break it down now' rap cameos from pop songs as not to disturb the sheltered children of middle-England who may have been traumatized hearing an angry black man spitting out rhymes.

Things are way different now. Even the wholesome Pixie Lott is allegedly receiving multi-racial loving from tattoo-clad rapper Chipmunk. Black music and black British culture is for sale at knocked down prices, though it's hard to tell how long this interest in urban customs will last as the scene is becoming profusely clich├ęd.

Pop music has always been ephemeral and urban music's lack of innovation risks middle-class kids throwing in the towel and embracing their fellow white guys with guitars again. It's worrying that British urban acts have sold themselves out so early by featuring on any number of shit pop records like the ones already mentioned and therefore cheapening their own status. In America, gangsta rap artists waited decades before they agreed to cameo on mainstream pop recordings. The problem in Britain is that the urban scene was not properly established before these so-called 'grime' artists shacked up with prosaic pop acts, thus inadvertently denigrated the overall value of British urban music.

British society is unique. Although race is a big issue in certain parts of the country, and more of a significant issue than what Will Gompertz and his ilk may think; the dominant lines of division are more seeded in social class than anything else. Even though the white British working classes have historically been in conflict with ethnic minorities who came and settled in their sacred estates, the former has been forced to exist alongside people of colour primarily because of fiscal reasons. Immigration may have caused civil unrest in Britain but it was affordable council housing that made both white folks and black folks unwilling neighbours. It is within this social melting pot that the new movement of British urban culture has erupted.

For example, Plan B is an underclass white artist who sings ersatz soul music and Dizzie Rascal is an underclass black guy who raps on shitty pop songs but both these young men are opposite ends of the same spectrum. They both come from poverty. They both have been failed by the state. They were both fucked over by an inept school system and neglected by feckless teachers who couldn't give a shit about them. And now both these artists have enviable career trajectories that most struggling middle-class musicians can only dream of. They have capitalised on the national love for inner-city urban traditions and made a good living out of it, although it's arguable just how relevant they and their music will be in the years to come. The point is that, much like what Charles Dickens did in the 19th Century when he wrote harrowing stories about how the other half of municipal London lives, the British urban scene is providing the middle-classes with a snapshot of how the modern underclass in Britain exists. It makes the middle-classes feel insightful and daring, giving them a false sense of understanding, the kind of which they'd never really know about because they, much like Will Gompertz, feel the need to avoid such encounters in real life. In this sense it is disappointing that British urban music has merely become a compromised utility rather than the authentic cultural expression it should be.

Unlike Dizzie Rascal and Plan B, Tinie Tempah is an articulate black man from South London who has been educated to a higher level than most of his 'grime' music peers, though in no way can his state schooling be labelled as privileged. Tinie is a smart guy who worked hard for what he has and he obviously values knowledge. Tinie has even debated at the Oxford University debating chamber, with one Oxbridge student named Louisa Stoppard telling the student union press: "It was cool to have someone who is our own age and who is on a par with people here."

But honestly, is Tinie Tempah genuinely relatable to the privileged masses of Oxford University who have largely enjoyed a purchased education provided by their parents and had the types opportunities only made available to them because of their elevated social standing? Can these people even be allowed to claim any ounce of relation to a rapper like Tinie Tempah? Maybe they can and that's why Princes' William and Harry are huge fans of his, the latter even wanting Tinie Tempah to rap at his brother's imminent stag party. The truth is that people of privilege have no right in claiming they have a positive relationship with British urban music because they are the same bastards who curtailed its progression by previously ostracising the songs from radio and music television playlists. Things may have improved but that is down to the tenacity of British rappers and singers. The British urban music scene needs to fix up and look sharp because by pandering to middle-class acceptance it's doing both them and their music a disservice.

But by renouncing the current love middle-class kids are giving British urban music we may not be appreciating that it is this very acceptance which has made it a powerful cultural force. The attention middle-classes have given contemporary British urban music is exactly why Will Gompertz's reported on it, and in no way was it a negative report like the news features American broadcasters were running on gangsta rap in the 1980s when Ronald Regan's Republican Party went to war with the U.S. urban music scene for corrupting innocent suburban white kids. Things are far too post-modern for anything like that happening in Britain today. Also, rap music is not as political and confrontational as it used to be, which is unfortunate because it doesn't feel as dangerous as what it used to.

Still, without adequate understanding, support and development it is likely the British urban music scene is simply a passing phase that will eventually outstay its welcome. That's a shame because, if they had played it correctly, it could have been revolutionary and not merely a transitory flash in the pan.


  1. I didnt realize Ali G's parents were such educated upstanding individuals. I think I have a whole new respect for him.

  2. Amazed by your observations and agree with everything you wrote. Indeed the British urban music scene needs to fix up and grow some balls, it could be brialliant.

  3. Yes, you are so right. Will Gompertz should read 'Will Gormless'...Bet he's another one of the BBC's Oxbridge twats.

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