“Iconic” and “beautifully powerful”, a performance that will “go down in our country’s cultural history”.
These were the rave receptions of Stormzy, as the first black British solo artist to headline Glastonbury Festival, and his show-stopping set on Friday night. Gospel and grime united in a triumphant display of black British culture. At the same time, the entrance of the Londoner, clad in a monochrome Union-Jack-adorned stab vest — a planted work of art by renowned graffiti artist Banksy — and the echoing cry of his “F**k the government, F**k Boris” lyric captured the angst of a frustrated nation.
It was a landmark moment for British hip-hop, symbolic of its meteoric rise from the underground to the pinnacle of popular culture.
Now from the landmark to the challenge.
British hip-hop has never shied away from addressing important social and political themes, from Wretch 32’s “Open Conversation”, dedicated to Mark Duggan, fatally shot by police in north London in 2011 (“’Member they put the cuffs on me/Felt like I couldn’t even stand up or breathe/Brother Mark never made it to custody”) to Dave’s “Question Time” (“I just find it funny you can’t give a hand to Palestine/But you can trade whole arms with Saudi Arabia”).
But when hip-hop artists attempt to use their music as a form of political activism, they are confronted with a series of barriers impeding success. In the past, it has been censorship from politicians and corporate elites, which the streaming revolution has helped overcome. But this dispersion of music brings difficulties of its own.
A Threat to the Status Quo
Since the turn of the millennium, a body of artists, whose work is defined by its blurring of the lines between rap and activism, have come from hip-hop’s underground scene. They may not be household names, but they have developed a fiercely loyal following, both in Britain and the US. Felipe Coronel (aka Immortal Technique), one of the biggest names in independent hip-hop, calls the genre “reality rap”.
In Britain, this movement is spearheaded by MCs like Akala and Lowkey, both of whom intersperse their tour dates with guest lectures and Oxford Union debates. Through their music and addresses, they seek to fight injustice and promote change, confronting political and economic elites.
Lowkey’s 2019 record, Soundtrack To The Struggle Vol. 2, is a testament to the movement’s political astuteness. The album features dialogue from intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein and includes the tracks Islamaphobic Lullabies, Ghosts of Grenfell, and Neoliberalism Kills People.
Lowkey takes on the military-industrial complex (“Wall Street is writing this Trump script/Raytheon and Lockheed are riding this Trump ship”) and the legacy of colonialism (“They tell us tea is tradition to the English/When I look around this island not a tea plantation in it/Earl Grey gave 20 million to the slave traders/Multi-polar world now the Indians are space raiders”). He hopes to educate as well as mobilize, spreading a message of frustration but also of tolerance and solidarity.
These politically-astute hip-hop MCs aim, not just to reflect the world around them, but also to change it. But struggling for exposure, they face an uphill battle within an industry which, for them, serves corporate interests as it brought in $9.8 billion in 2018. If a song or album is seen to threaten the financial interests of major record labels, streaming services, or media platforms, it is far less likely to receive as much exposure as one committed to less controversial themes.
The boppy romanticism of Drake or the self-congratulation of Kanye West will always be preferred to Immortal Technique’s calls for revolution, by radio producers and record executives alike. Coronel says, “they want us to just dance and sing and smile and pretend that the world is OK”, as he puts it in “Industrial Revolution”, “No one’s as good as me. They just got better marketing schemes”.
Even non-profit media companies have been accused of censorship. In 2012, the BBC doctored the line “I can scream Free Palestine” during a radio performance by Mic Righteous, drawing heavy criticism from both rappers and free speech activists.
Akala summarizes the difficulties for politically-conscious rap to enter the mainstream:
They tell us it’s not marketable. What they mean is, again, it doesn’t fit with the agenda of the people who control the music industry….What (we’re) saying is unacceptable to be played at that time of day, to that audience. Not because it wouldn’t resonate with them, actually quite the contrary. Because if it resonates with them, what are the consequences?
Forced into a Corner
Political censorship of rap music is old news — it goes back almost as far as hip-hop itself. From Detroit police officers storming the stage at an NWA concert to the London drill artists with injunctions imposed on their songs, lyrical content deemed too aggressive or provocative has long made rappers a target for law enforcement.
Britain’s comparatively young hip-hop scene has been choked by repressive measures, including from government. The Metropolitan Police’s infamous “Form 696”, scrapped by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2017, was criticized for disproportionately targeting live music events more popular amongst young black Londoners. Demanding impossible security provisions, sometimes on the day of the event, many venues were forced to cancel hip-hop gigs, effectively barring artists from performing in the capital.
Up against the full weight of the state, underground rappers are left with an agonizing choice between their careers and their freedom. Immortal Technique has had his passport seized. Lowkey was arrested and his house raided by police. In January, two drill rappers received nine-month criminal sentences for playing their song “Attempted 1.0”. AM, one of the convicted artists, explains the predicament:
We don’t have a lot of power, ultimately….We didn’t contest the injunction, and the breach, because we couldn’t afford it – we were forced into a corner.
Visibility — But at A Price
While they face crackdowns on live performances, artists are now able to reach an increasing number of people, thanks to the technological advances which have revolutionized the way we listen to music.
Chuck D of Public Enemy famously said, “Rap is the invisible TV station that black America never had”. In hip-hop’s early days, many MCs struggled to make a name for themselves beyond their neighborhoods, let alone attract international audiences.
Streaming has opened new channels through which artists can share their music with a far more diverse range of listeners. This has undermined the major labels’ monopoly over artists and made it far more difficult to censor controversial material.
Lowkey acknowledges that this has allowed his voice to be heard, “Ten years ago, somebody with these kinds of messages would have been blocked by the gatekeepers.”
Yet these new opportunities come at a price. The rise of the playlist has occurred at the expense of the album, meaning that songs are increasingly heard in isolation. Politically-conscious rappers must often condense messages into single tracks rather than being able to explore them over a whole record. The most popular hip-hop playlists are created by the streaming services, who tend to select songs based on lyrical complexity over a powerful message.
But that is not to say activism is impossible, then and now.
Public Enemy’s Fight The Power and NWA’s F**k Tha Police are iconic songs, with a political legacy that cannot be ignored — and that has been adopted by youth protest movements around the world, from Belgrade in 1996 to Cairo during 2011’s Arab Spring uprising to Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
These songs and their successors have established that politically-conscious reality rap can enter the mainstream, mobilizing people in support of a political cause. As Akala points out, “Artists are an alternative source of power, they can speak to and command the attention of a lot of people”.
Still, reality rap has been on the sidelines, as political references settled for being lyrical features of mainstream hip-hop rather than a defining element.
So Stormzy not only broke ground at Glastonbury — arguably the biggest stage in the world — with the colour of his skin. As he referenced issues from a biased criminal justice system to body image, he was staking out new territory for politics and music.
His set picked up on fear and anger, while also exalting joy and redemption. And when he closed with “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2”, he didn’t just bring down the house, he opened its doors for British reality rap and a new political generation.