Was Kanye patronising or boosting grime with his Brits performance?

Some observers say Kanye West was just using British MCs as props – but one MC who was onstage says he and his comrades don’t need US help, and that it’s the Americans who get inspired by British music

Not content with providing a remarkable few minutes of theatre at what has often been the music industry’s most soporific award ceremony, Kanye West’s performance at last Wednesday’s Brits has thrown up a huge debate about the relative struggles to be heard faced by different types of black music. Debuting his new track All Day, he was backed by a Greek chorus of 40-odd men in black tracksuits and hoodies, two of them holding giant flame-throwers. Among this backing line, keen eyes noticed, were British MCs Skepta, Jammer, Shorty, Krept and Konan, Novelist, Stormzy and Fekky. It was a stage-show which managed, presumably deliberately, to flush out the racists; Kanye was “promoting gang culture”, to a few critics on Twitter – as if anything he has ever done has been as straightforward as that.

For many, it was a moment to be celebrated – Kanye brought the whole grime scene to the Brits! was a common response – a triumphant mobbing of the stage by some of the biggest names in a scene that has generally been ignored, humbled or watered down by the British music industry. Two fingers up to the suits, on its biggest, most tepid night out of the year, from musicians like Skepta, Jammer and Krept and Konan, who between them have spent decades releasing music to great acclaim (and, often, substantial sales) on tiny independent labels, or more often, putting it out themselves, direct to the fans. The irony was simple and powerful – there’s no way any of those MCs would be able to secure a place on that stage under their own steam; the sense is that British music is not a meritocracy, and the grass is greener for hip-hop in the US than it is in the UK. The fact that the MCs got their “break” at the invitation of someone as flighty as Kanye doesn’t matter – he recognised their need to be there, and perhaps the “black Atlantic” connection is a stronger bond than black British music’s foothold on its own soil.

For grime godfather Wiley, enthusiastically cheering this on from his sofa, “a statement was made”, as he wrote on Twitter, adding “Kanye Knows The Brits Ain’t letting dons in there like that so he kicked off the door for us. Imagine 1 of us saying Yeh I’m bringing 20 dons.”

Kanye Knows The Brits Ain't letting dons in there like that so he kicked off the door for us.Imagine 1 of us saying Yeh I'm bringing 20 dons

— Chasing The Art . (@WileyUpdates) February 26, 2015

What a way to use the bully pulpit, right? Well, not if no-one really knows you’re there. “The literally fiery performance featured Kanye with a crew of people, all dressed in black” reported US hip-hop magazine Complex to its hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers. Some of the very people in the US hip-hop industry that the likes of Skepta might have hoped to impress did not even notice they were there, let alone use it as an entry point to discover what their individual talents, styles and music might be like.

Writing in the Voice, broadcaster Remel London expressed scepticism about whether this really was such a great landmark for black British music. The performance “helped placate my longing to see people who look like me on stage”, she wrote, “[but] why do we need validation from a US artist on a British platform? … Don’t treat my brothers like back-up dancers.”

Because, that was the thing, this wasn’t a collaboration – none of the British MCs got to say a word. It was a reminder of more humble times for black British music, and especially that throughout the 1990s and 2000s, until the breakthrough year of 2009, in fact), the British charts, the labels and the radio playlists were all too happy to import market-tested US rap and R&B en masse, while UK rap, jungle, grime, and to a lesser extent UK garage struggled to climb out of the underground for more than a very occasional one-off hit.

For some grime fans, the Brits performance was an embarrassing lapdog-type display, a demonstration of a special relationship in which US rap is the headstrong leader of the free world, and grime is Tony Blair, whispering submissively in Dubya’s ear. “What is all this ‘US first and British second’ mentality about?”, asked Remel London in her piece for the Voice. The suspicion is that black British music is only fit to provide local ’hood flavour to help legitimise an American millionaire pop star, a mute chorus line of ready-to-wear street cred for fashion-obsessed Kanye – paraded in front of its auld enemy, the British music industry.

For MC Novelist, the youngest of the British MCs to join Kanye onstage, the idea of grime playing second fiddle never occurred. “We were just chilling in Skepta’s house, and Kanye rang Skepta and said, ‘Yo, can you get some of your guys to come down?’ – so Skepta just brought his music mates. It was very spontaneous, it was only an hour before the show. I liked the fact that I was onstage with people like myself in my tracksuit, that was sick.”

Suiting up and pandering to the industry doesn’t come naturally to a generation of grime MCs raised on the idea of the scene’s DIY self-sufficiency – it has survived this long without American patronage, Novelist says, so why would they change now? Appearing with Kanye wasn’t, then, an act of subservience.

“You know what, the US has got nothing to do with what we’re doing,” Novelist says. “On the UK scene we take influence from each other. We’re closer to bashment artists than Americans, I’d say. The closest thing to it they have is probably southern rap, Three Six Mafia kind of music. They get excited when they come over and see what we do as grime musicians, because there’s nothing like it in the US, so when we do it, they’re intrigued, they’re inspired.”

The enthusiasm of (the albeit Canadian) Drake for all things grime recently would seem to back him up; he has been gushing about the underground grime DVD series Lord of the Mics, the TV series Top Boy and his love of “legend” Wiley.

For Novelist, grime doesn’t need the approval of the UK music industry any more than it does from superstars from across the Atlantic. “It all stems from respect from the people.” he says. “Onstage at the Brits, we were the people’s people, the rebels, and that’s why Twitter and everything was going mental. The TV, the blogs, the big magazines, it doesn’t matter if they say it, the country knows about us, and that’s all that matters.”

It might be his youth – Novelist is still only 18; he was still in primary school when Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner came out – but the idea of playing the industry game doesn’t ever seem to have crossed his mind. This is an MC who recently released a song about his open invitation to a mic battle in the Lewisham branch of McDonald’s.

“You can make money underground.” he says. “There’s live booking circuits, merchandising, so many different ways to make money. You can do things comfortably without having to conform, without the approval of the Brits.” But would he want to be in Kanye’s position at some point, and perform at the Brits in his own right?

“I’ve got ambition to perform everywhere man. Whether it’s a youth club in the ends, or if it’s in front of 20,000 people at the Culture Clash, or at the Brits – it doesn’t make any difference.” Or in Lewisham McDeez? He laughs. “Exactly – it’s the same thing.”


Dan Hancox

The GuardianTramp

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