Hiphop Education in the UK: Making the case for Grime

JME setting fire to the mic with a uni degree in the ‘Man Don’t Care’ video

Earlier this year, I took my year 8 tutor group through a Hiphop Ed curriculum, through which we explored the history of Hiphop, cultural resonances worldwide, and various related  socio-economic issues including class, Feminism, gender norms, and Capitalism. The project began with a DJ workshop and culminated in a series of essays, each on a question chosen by individual students. During this time we analysed rap lyrics, watched documentary footage, had debates on key issues and even carried out primary research at a local shopping centre. They then had to take their essays and flip them into five-minute ‘Ignite’ speeches, which were delivered in a whole school event.

Before this process began I knew my students had an interest in Hiphop. Even the most casual chats about music confirmed what we already know: that Hiphop culture (and its various offshoots) is now the dominant youth culture. This, of course, is by no means a simple cause for celebration. The hyper-capitalist direction mainstream Hiphop has moved in has almost divorced it from social responsibility, as my class discussed after reading Questlove’s excellent essay series: ‘How Hiphop Failed Black America’. And it is no accident that five of my 13 students chose to focus their essays upon issues surrounding gender and the subjugation of women in modern society. They were ready to interrogate rather than celebrate.

Which I found interesting. After the initial novelty of playing with records had waned, it became apparent that for these kids (aged 12/ 13) very much saw the Hiphop I presented to them as something historic. Their expertise and relatedness to the culture as they understand it is tied, inextricably, to the context through which they discovered it. Sounds obvious, but it raises a (much debated) point about not just Hiphop in education but cultural studies overall: to what extent should a student’s experience of a culture steer their exploration of that culture’s ‘official’ history? I felt as though I was giving my class an opportunity to deepen their understanding of a culture that pervades their exploratory adolescent years, but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much they cared.

Skip forward a few months to the end of term, and the obligatory classroom party, complete with Doritos, Haribo, party games and youtube playlists. After minor protestations I quickly capitulated and let the kids take the helm. And weren’t the results interesting.

First of all, as expected, the playlist was entirely black music, with no exception, again confirming what we already know: that black culture (and its various offshoots) is the dominant youth culture. Slightly more interesting was the provenance of music being chosen. It was about 90% (give or take) British. And almost entirely current. And of this selection, exclusively Grime.

I find this telling. My class (predominantly Muslim, about 60% UK-born, speaking a total of 11 different languages, spanning Eastern Europe, Asia, West and North Africa) are in firm agreement that the hottest music out is Grime music. With unfettered access to the latest hits via youtube, these nascent adolescents seem to be pinning their flags to artists who speak in the language of their streets.

I recently read this excellent and inspiring piece on ‘Why I love Grime’ by @okwonga which reminded me what excites me so much about Grime. Its energy, wit, underlying social protest and unashamed Britishness make it a compelling incarnation of UK youth culture. Not to mention the fact that Grime has evolved from a very British heritage (Ragga, Dancehall, Jungle, Garage), harking back to the Windrush diaspora and proliferation of Black Britain via the West African migration of the 1970s. So when I find myself shouting the lyrics to ‘Man Don’t Care’ by JME alongside three or four over-excited 12 year-olds, maybe I’m actually celebrating – black UK music and black UK culture.

I teach in London, so it’s not surprising that my students revere Grime, which is a cultural London success story. Their eyes light up with Grime. They love references to a world they can see on the way home from school, spoken in the same language they learn in the playgrounds of their schools. The glitz of American Hiphop seems to be too glitzy, too glamorous, too foreign, too mainstream. Your Kanyes and Jay Zs are of an older generation, music for their parents maybe. And even your Drakes and Big Seans (who the kids love) seem to be a few years stale. While the neo-conscious movement led by your Kendrick Lamars and J Coles just doesn’t seem to register at all. The average UK teenage music fan is looking for something closer to home, and what’s closer to home than Grime?

Skepta summarises the wider relevance of Grime neatly in the following line from ‘Castles’:

My teacher told me I’m a side man, I told her to remember me Now they wanna email me, asking if I can talk to the kids in assembly

Grime was never supposed to make it into the mainstream; it’s the sound of disaffected youth shouting discontent in shows of lyricism that mean nothing to anyone other than themselves. And yet the culture has born a generation of icons who are part of the establishment, whether the establishment accepts it or not.

On this note, the image that introduces this essay is particularly revealing. JME takes the university degree he has and sets it alight in a blazing rejection of societal expectations and mainstream definitions of success. He then proceeds to use this to set fire to the microphone that he has chosen to define him, before rapping a few bars into the flames. It’s a powerful conflation of ideals that ultimately empowers him. He can do what he wants, how he wants, with or without the acceptance of mainstream society. Grime, in its idiosyncratic tunnel vision and ADHD energy levels, is much the same; a symbol of empowered disaffection.

So perhaps when we discuss Hiphop Education in the UK we really need to discuss Grime as the embodiment of Hiphop’s basic tenets in this country. Perhaps Grime is the UK’s incarnation of Hiphop, as socially and politically important as any other musical movement. And perhaps we (by which I mean educators) should therefore give it the respect it’s already earned from today’s youth. Something to think about.



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