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By Aimee Cliff
I’ve been listening a lot to Kanye West and Jay Z’s “Watch The Throne” the last few days. The clash of its release – arguably the most highly anticipated hip hop release of 2011 – with the onslaught of riots across the UK has been an interesting combination. As my eyes have digested images of explosive vandalism, of people crying, people suffering, I’ve been hearing Kanye snarling threateningly “who gon’ stop me?” over the flare of alarms. As I’ve watched buildings I’ve known since my childhood being smashed in my hometown, Frank Ocean has been singing to me, “what’s a god to a non-believer?”
Paul Routledge wrote this morning in the Daily Mirror that the blame for this week’s UK riots lies with “the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority”. This is such an oft-repeated, well-worn view that it’s almost boring; the blame-seeking gaze of the mass media in a time of crisis constantly settles on hip hop and grime. The lyrics seem so blatantly to encapsulate the vicious rebellion that we are seeing around us, but the corollary is too easy to establish – it views both instances in a vacuum, refusing to account for the social context which surrounds them.
It’s true that this music, made on the fringes of society, made by people who are choosing it instead of street crime, is emblematic of the angry, anti-social attitudes of a lost generation, a forgotten class. Does that mean it has caused violence? Does that mean it should be banned? To say so would be missing the point entirely. Rap music comes from a group of people who have shunned apathy or delinquency and chosen positive action, chosen expression. Rappers and MCs don’t invent violent attitudes, they are telling us about them – when Dizzee tells his listeners to run when they hear “them sirens comin’”, or when Wiley raps that the “police are scared, true story”, they are presenting the world with snapshots of the subcultures they have lived within.
There are sections of our society that have no investment in what others may consider valuable, that are detached from community spirit – at one end of the scale these sections of society generate artistic brilliance and the drive to succeed, and at the other end, they generate disenfranchisement and crime.
When Frank Ocean sings “what’s a king to a god? What’s a god to non-believer?”, the person who holds no faith, no investment, in any kind of structure, is the person who trails on the end of the sequence, the person who is nothing to no-one. What’s a god to a non-believer? What’s a society to a non-achiever?
I’m not suggesting anything about the classes or backgrounds of those people rioting in Britain this week; evidence so far suggests the profiles of the criminals are extremely varied. What I am arguing is that rap music is not the problem – for many, rap music is a solution. Music creates purpose, creates rhyme and reason, creates order where there is none. Like Frank says, there’s no church in the wild; having nothing to believe in is what creates feral behaviour. Having music – brilliant, expressive, honest music – is not.