For decades, grime has prided itself in being the fast-paced lyrical narrative of the black working class, with rappers like Hackney born and bred JME professing how ‘the music originated and will always remain in the streets’. But with the recent success of grime artists such as Stormzy resulting in a move from the urban hubbub of Croydon to the gold-lined streets of Chelsea, are rappers becoming disconnected from the streets they came from?
Inevitably merging out of earlier genres like garage and jungle in the early naughties, grime remained underground until 2004 with Lethal Bizzle and his hit single ‘Pow (Forward)’. Bizzle himself claims that ‘pow’ was used as a phrase to express a sense of dissatisfaction with the world and with big music labels. ‘Pow’ epitomises the sentiment behind grime that not many heard, as the only outlet in the past was pirate radio stations and small independent record shops to voice the frustrations of a generation.
With no social media to get you heard in the click of the button, grime found a tough time gaining mass attention in the early 00s but maybe in a way, it didn’t want to. The genre’s history in the underground music scene is what most people think of when they first think of grime, so with Stormzy bringing it into the limelight, fame’s affect on grime could be perilous. It’s no question that Stormzy is quite possibly the biggest disruption to the grime scene in the past 5 years, after claiming the title of first grime album to reach no.1 in the charts while carrying two MOBO awards and a sold-out nationwide tour under his belt.
With all this fame, the message could become distorted as music becomes less nuanced for a specific audience and more generalised for the masses. Just look at Stormzy’s featured performance on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’. This talented freestyler has almost become the token rapper, the guy who they brought in to, in the words of comedian Jon Lajoie’s ‘Pop Song’, ‘get a small percentage of the urban music market’. The widespread attention (not to mention money) could mean Stormzy doing more generic rap and becoming a diluted version of his former self.
His debut album Gang Signs & Prayer was essentially a giant thank you to his fans, all while showing off the lyrical chops that made him famous in the first place. His sophomore album however, is where we will see if fame affects Stormzy’s music. If more grime artists are moving further and further away from ‘the streets’ so to speak, does this mean the message will not be as strong as before? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not narrow minded enough to believe that because you’ve done well for yourself you can’t remember hardships of the past, but if Stormzy continues with more Ed Sheeran-like snippets and less grime anthems, he’ll soon become forgotten in the grime world while being the hit of the pop world.
You can’t deny that Stormzy has successfully made a name for himself through hard work and genuine graft, his passion for grime has fuelled his success and could be what carries him into the future as the king of grime. Yet the move to Chelsea is potentially dangerous for Stormzy’s music; a young working class black man on the periphery of society rapping about his adversities is evocative and sympathetic, but a well-off man doing the same is somewhat less so. It’s often the case that musicians from all genres become detached from their humble beginnings and end up alienating their fans, thus forgetting what made them famous in the first place.
That being said, we can’t be so ignorant to accept that ‘the struggle’ begins and ends at money. If living in a fancy house and your music lands you a decent salary, so what? The struggle is not limited just to the working class, because even if you’re Stormzy, your white neighbours think you’re breaking into your own house.
Although artists should always tread carefully with mainstream success and should always remember their ‘roots’ so to speak, ‘the struggle’ never ends. It can manifest itself as battles of race, gender, sexuality and in this mad age of politics, grime can become better than ever, regardless of wealth.
(Featured image: NRK P3/Flickr)