The Politics of Urban Music

by | November 1, 2019

Taken from Teardrops:

[Darcus Howe]: We have complained to the police about police and nothing’s been done, we have complained to judges about judges and nothing’s been done. Now it is time to do something ourselves.


In love and war

All is fair where I’m from

The weak won’t last

A week in shoes like our ones

When it rains it pours

Hoodies all summer

‘Cause teardrops from the sky

Only seem to fall on you and I

These words feature on Teardrops, a song on Kano’s latest album, Hoodies All Summer. They mark a transition towards an outward speaking Kano, an elder with a message for his younger generation. Kano’s progress as an artist is clear and since Made in The Manor, his last album released in 2016, expectations have been brewing on the hottest flame. Hoodies All Summer does indeed represent the artist’s maturation, producing a sound and tone of social commentary mixed in with the personal story-telling typical of Kano’s skippy flows and varied delivery. Topical in every song, the album hits home on key points, giving a voice to the black youth of today’s Britain via Kano’s distilling perspective. He is after all a kid from the ends who, in spite of his many clear commercial successes, reminds us that you ‘can’t take the ends out of the kid.’ 

The album even successfully transcends its own medium. The music video for Trouble, which cleverly features a second song from the album, Class of Deja – with its old-school grime flavour an instant classic – is masterfully produced, making it more like a short-film. The accompanying visuals provide a commentary about the UK’s knife crime epidemic, with disturbing images of the young faces already becoming desensitized to the loss of black life. Including the voice of the important British Black civil rights activist Darcus Howe, Kano targets the psychological trauma and self-hatred that is so easily produced and inherited in the crucible of working-class concrete jungles, so neglected and afforded such little opportunity. Kano also shows that there is so much beauty in the subsequent passion born out of these circumstances: the video’s depiction of the song performed at a funeral wake demonstrates this exactly: our [black] energy and passion are being used and reinvested with sheer and raw talent. This message is so relevant at a time when urban music forms have received their unfair share of criticism from mainstream media about their role in the knife crime epidemic and crime more generally. There’s only laziness in the supposed allegation that music is contributing to the social issues that our communities face. The most “aggressive” of flows can be performed at a wake and gass a whole crowd. That is real, raw and that is and has always been blackness. This same music is (and has been) saving kids and redirecting lives. 

Underlying the album is a brutally honest message: there is no expectation of some deus ex machina, and remaining passive, violence will continue to breed violence. Rather the album (or really music in general as a creative force) demonstrates the possibilities and potential that can arise out of the investment of that energy and frustration into productive means. Kano pays homage to his own beginnings as a musician, at a time when there was no mainstream reception of grime or urban sounds, before black artists could expect radio plays, before Dizzee Rascal’s commercial success: be it “going to the mattresses” (using mattresses to soundproof a room and record out of your bedroom is a throwback for artists without studios) or “putting in work on the roof” (the base often used by some pirate radio stations for broadcasting). Being creative about change is the resounding message of the album and the video for Trouble.  It is this that kids idolise, not some glorification of the often harsh experiences of young artist’s as certain media outlets would have us think. In this spirit, during an insightful interview with Akala, Kano makes the enlightening comment that young rappers and artists, in attempting to make music about their realities, are already saying something about the nature of their circumstances, by opting out and for music careers. Sadly, or not, change for us has always started and will always start with our communities giving ourselves opportunities. The likes of Bo Jo or the rest of his terrifying cabinet are nothing new – he’s been an opp for a minute. And if you can get to the end of the album and still believe that young people talking about their realities is a glorification of their harsh, lived realities, then the last song is a decisive and definitive answer to that debate. Unapologetic as ever, Kano sings: ‘Suck your mum and die, if you think niggers just love these cuffs and riots’. 

The same sentiment of dissonance between politicians and working-class communities is echoed in the beautifully sung refrain in Trouble:

Politician hush don’t make a sound
They’re oppressing us a couple centuries now,
and these gunshots never reach your town,
it’s never on top when you leave your house

The success of Kano’s album should be that its message is holistic and sincere, from the lover’s grief in Got My Brandy, Got My Beats to police harassment in Teardrops and the homage to musical forbearers throughout the whole album. As a celebration and representation of black (and working-class) life, we should be clear on the variety of messages within: as much as there is gass and hype, there are teardrops and grief; as much as there is celebration of black success, there is misery at the loss of black life and creative energy.  

Ultimately, Kano’s celebration of black life emboldens us towards community and a united voice in the face of adversity. Black creatives especially should not concede ground to an individualism born out of desire for commercial success. That means that we need to start re-living community. When Blues artists said ‘I got the blues, I ain’t go no x and I ain’t got no y’, implicit was that the ‘I’ represented our social issues and our social marginalisation. Now that the urban scene, encompassing all of those reactionary sounds that emerged to embrace our heritages and culture (ska, reggae, grime, blues, jazz etc.), has sustained its own voice and created its own platforms, the rest of the world wants in. That is fine. But let’s not forget about the passion for social change that these genres and subcultures are born out of, nor the intrinsic value of oral and musical traditions to black heritage. The commercial consumption of black music continues to be problematic and ignores its innate passion and reactionary if not revolutionary nature.

Grime created its own platform in the UK and in doing so, in part, birthed a wide variety of the urban music that we have today. It started underground and continues to breathe independently from the mainstream.  As street poetry it is a particularly British contribution to the larger tradition of Black urban music. The self-identifying ‘bluesologist’ and jazz-poet Gil Scott-Heron, often considered the godfather of hip-hop, comments on the origin of blues and jazz poetry that “of course this poetry was always put down as street poetry because that’s where the people were…people were on the street and these were the people you wanted to communicate with.” There is something to say about the urban social environment and its role in black music. Specifically it is the conditions consistent to “the streets” (anywhere in the world) – more often referring to areas of working-class people, immigrants and ghettos – and those communities’ reaction to those conditions that birth the urban music tradition. Social issues have their symptoms and one symptom is the need of an outlet of expression. This reaction is most visible in the socially conscious commentary prevalent in the poetry of Langston Hughes’ Blues or Nina Simone’s verses, Bob Marley’s reggae or Nas’ Hip-Hop. That black music forms sustain such a reactionary political voice is no surprise given the conditions in which they are borne. 

The tradition of urban music then is, at its roots, underground and reactionary. With growing commercial reception and success, urban music has emerged into the spotlight and it is hard to see Top 10 charts not half-full of black and urban music. However this has also blunted the reactionary and political content, perhaps because of the lack of understanding of the context of music’s content or the implicit biases of media outlets. When Dave won his mercury award, ITV responded with a tweet that felt it necessary to remind people that Dave’s brother (a personal source of inspiration to his album and its sound) was indeed a criminal. The various responses to this explicit prejudice eventually resulted in its removal, but the lasting effect remains with us: black achievements will always draw disproportionate and un-nuanced criticism. Indeed increased recognition and representation do not equate to a cultural change in how we are viewed by the same sort of people with the same sort of ideas and prejudices. In many ways, any sort of extra commentary about black music still feels like a concession, only a small intermediary step towards listening directly and engaging with black artistic output. We must remind ourselves of the struggle that urban music often represents and its political content -this struggle makes that music and shapes its voice. Whether it is the social issues mentioned or the culture being represented, the messages are always there.

PS: Any cultural revolution would require us to reach a point where we instinctively reject prejudice and hear each other properly, clearly and embrace inter-cultural dialogue. It is this level of dialogue and engagement that would put an end to offensive and ineffective measures imposed by ‘other sections of the population’: we don’t want tampered chicken boxes @ukhomeoffice; we want a sincere investment in our future. Up until that point we reserve our right to carry on with our grinds, creating opportunity out of nothing. The censorship and limits placed on black freedom of expression are not even subtle anymore. Blaming rap, trap, drill or grime music for social issues such as knife crime is exactly the lazy rhetoric of  the establishment and its distant politicians. Whilst these containment politics can exclude the black community from access to resources and, with that, the clear outlets for young people, it cannot and will not exclude them from accessing their own voice. 

“The young people have begun the rebellion refusing to work; they have received very little support from other sections of the population; as a consequence of which they must find money by these means. We say we are against those means, not because we are moralists, not because we are religious freaks, but precisely because mugging involves loss of life and liberty and the continuing attack on that section of the black community, police brutality, prison brutality, a whole wastage of human creativity – that is why we are against it.”

– the late Leighton Rhett ‘Darcus’ Howe (1943-2017), Caribbean-British activist, writer and broadcaster (excerpt in Trouble by Kano). 


Words by Jerry Amokwandoh, Artwork by Ng Wei Kai.