On a stereotypically grey Monday that somehow feels strangely foreign thanks to the heatwave we’ve been enjoying/suffering, I jump on the phone to political commentator and activist Ash Sarkar for a long and meandering discussion on grime and politics.
I begin our chat by telling her that, a few weeks back, I performed at LIMF, where I fulfilled a boyhood dream by meeting one of my idols, Wiley. He was patient zero for the grime fever that infected our generation, and his story is inarguably a centrepiece in the tale of 21st-century British music so far. I dive headfirst into this topic, knowing that Ash had a hand in ghost-writing Wiley’s autobiography Eskiboy. Her intellectual curiosity and Wiley’s openness are a perfect match for leaving no stone unturned in the MC’s story, which is part of the reason why it makes for such essential reading.
“I grew up with grime. That was the first genre that I saw evolve from the little inklings of it until it blew up, and all the multiple phases of going and coming back,” she says. “Through doing the book I learned that Wiley was a huge part of that, he truly is the engine behind it in so many ways.”
It’s easy to see how a youth soundtracked by grime with its grassroots ethos may well have played a small part in shaping Ash’s political leanings. She has made a career of writing astutely and positively about a growing socialist appetite in the UK’s youth, and is now senior editor at left-wing news website Novara Media as well as lecturing in global politics at Anglia Ruskin University. You may even have seen her recent clash with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain over a debate on protesting Trump’s visit to the UK. Her phrase “I’m literally a communist, you idiot” travelled around the world quicker than one of Morgan’s fawning, Trump-loving tweets, pushing her standing to a certain level of reluctant notoriety. Dazed magazine even went so far as to declare Ash Sarkar as one of “the voices resetting the political agenda in the UK”. It’s no surprise that her impending appearance at The World Transformed – on a bill that also features Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Naomi Klein and Dimitris Tzanakopoulos – is so well anticipated.
When it came to writing the inside story of the Godfather of UK grime, Ash found it exciting to get to grips with the inner motivations of someone she’d always been a fan of. “His mind works unlike anyone’s, it’s like all the synapses are firing off in all the different directions. When you ask him a question it’s sort of like throwing a pebble into the pond and seeing what comes to the surface, you’ve got no control over it at all.”
Ash Sarkar and MC Nelson
Anyone who has watched a Wiley interview knows what kind of an eccentric raconteur he is. Having helped transcribe his 20-year career in a book filled with his musings on the music industry, cult of celebrity, failure and success, family, friendship, race, parenthood, Britain, and much more, Ash must have been left with a buffet of food for thought. I ask if she was able to hone in on one lesson in particular she took away from the process. “The biggest takeaway that I got form working on the book is one that can be applied to politics; there is no substitute for authenticity and no substitute for integrity. So, rather than trying to chase an audience or an electorate by giving them what they think they want, you should give them what you want to give them and see how they respond to it. And when in doubt, go back to first principles. For Wiley, with the Godfather album, that meant recording stuff in Commander B’s studio and he produced some of the best work of his life.”
I find authenticity to be an interesting choice, as while the concept yields a lot of cultural clout, it is not immune to being co-opted and deployed by those with sinister motives. Cast your goldfish minds all the way back to early August and Boris Johnson’s comments on women wearing the burqa, as he tried to position himself as a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is everyman from down the pub. I explain this to Ash and she continues, “This has got a longer lineage than Boris Johnson. If you think back to 2005 there was a Tory campaign, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’. It looked like a hand-written envelope, so it had this look of being illicit or underground, but [the message] reads: ‘It’s not racist to have concerns about immigration’. So, there’s an embedded imagery in the political consciousness that to be openly racist is to make you an outsider, even though racism is an elitist art. There’s nothing authentic about it, it’s just that people associate anti-racism with politeness, with what you can’t say, with manners, which is why racism can be read as indicating authenticity. There’s nothing authentic about Boris Johnson, it’s not even his real fucking name.”
It’s refreshing to hear a political commentator talk about the Venn diagram of grime and politics, as it’s often assumed that the genre with roots in raves and MCs more orientated towards energy than philosophy, is apolitical. However, nothing in this life is apolitical; nothing exists in a vacuum, even before #Grime4Corbyn last year, the socio-political climate and government policies had a huge hand in shaping the early scene and continue to do so today. Unruly genres do not sprout up randomly, the soil must first be made fertile. Ash illustrates this idea perfectly when discussing the origins of grime and drill. “Grime came out of the existence of youth clubs; you don’t have that anymore and so what do you have its drill. Drill, for me, is music that speaks to an austerity generation completely abandoned, over-policed and under supported. It’s a home for the pain of young black people.”
We continue to discuss how grime has reached maturity: if it were a person our baby would now be old enough to drive, and soon old enough to drink. Its latest cycle has seen it finally permeate Middle England with Stormzy’s album reaching number 1, Wiley being gifted an MBE and Big Narstie now a mainstay on TV screens across the country. Grime has been absorbed by mainstream Britain, and in the process has lost its footing as the rebellious cry of black youth, superseded by drill music which speaks to a younger audience often born after the millennium. All these kids know is high resolution videos, missing out on trading tunes over Bluetooth like Pokémon cards. Ash explains how grime handing over the mantle of the lightning rod for Britain’s moral panic to drill has been treated clumsily by the media. “I was laughing because I just read an article in The Telegraph written by someone who is really whiter than a jar of mayonnaise, and she was quoting from Giggs in a way to imply that grime is good, and drill is violent. I was like, ‘You know he caught a gun charge and has done two stretches?’. It’s because, as a genre, grime has been co-opted and it’s safe for a journalist to make these points – but they don’t realise that Giggs, elsewhere, has criticised right-wing papers for leading with the deaths of young black boys while demonising them at the same time. So, I think there’s something interesting going on there in terms of how grime has been rendered safe.”
I put it to Ash that part of the reason that even the right-wing press have been able to co-opt grime is that it is one of the first black music genres to be born in the UK since lovers rock, and this reflected in its origins, from the Cockney rhyming slang to the football chants that were integral so many early MCs’ bars. On the other hand, the newer scenes that have sprung up in London such as drill and Afro-bashment, are much more internationalist in their influences, and so there is almost a patriotic point that can be made about grime.
Ash agrees, adding, “Grime was born within hearing distance of Bow Bells, like a true Cockney, and I think that it’s got quite a cheeky relationship to Englishness. You see it with Wiley with songs like Pies, and you definitely must have felt that when you were with Wiley; he’s a bit of a geezer, he often slips into a little bit of Del Boy, but then he’ll go full patois. He has that bar on the Scars remix: ‘Me haffi creep up on the riddim like a spider/Nuff of them are my yute/Nuff of them are minor’.” We spit the bar in unison – luckily neither of us attempt to go full patois. “He sounds like Flowdan, and Wiley’s the only artist I know that can do both.”
Thinking about the trifecta of rapper, Britain, homeland and the history of Empire that underlies this, I have to ask Ash how she felt about Wiley accepting the MBE: surely as the pioneer of an anti-establishment movement, the expected decision would be to reject it. Did the image of Prince William pinning a medal on Wiley’s lapel mark the end of the scene as a subversive force?
“Wiley is a very different man. For Wiley, it’s about time he was getting the acknowledgement. The Empire bit isn’t as important there, he has never pretended to be an Akala. He’s all about championing underdog art and taking it to a place where it can make money and be sustainable. I think it’s in keeping with what he is and what he stands for. The scene nearly killed him, people don’t know half the stories from the stabbings, it was all music related, none of them were drugs or anything like that. So when he says, ‘I nearly died for the game’, he’s not lying. So, I kind of feel like power to him – and I’m no monarchist.”
ASH SARKAR on THE WORLD TRANSFORMED
“The beauty of The World Transformed is that it’s the rambunctious younger sibling of the Labour Party Conference. First and foremost it is about generating radical ideas and it doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a Labour Party member, if you’re a Green Party member, if you’re an anarchist, there is space for you to participate in the ongoing conversations. But because it is taking place alongside the Labour Party Conference it means that you have people who are able to take some of those ideas and roll them up into policy, so it’s got the best of both worlds: access to power and also enough autonomy to be truly radical. Also, if you’re at The World Transformed and you’re like, ‘Fuck all of this, we need to do some proper social movement building’, there’s room to do that too. The marrying of radicalism and access – you don’t have that in any other political gathering in Europe.”
The World Transformed, a four-day festival of politics, music and art, takes place at Constellations, Hinterland and The Black-E between 22nd and 25th September. Buy your tickets here.