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Is Brexit to Blame for British Rap’s First Golden Era?

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“Bruv, this is how mad it is right now: Highsnobiety are ringing me asking about politics,” says DrillMinister, his smirking disbelief coming loud and clear down the phone line. “Our Prime Minister just got found guilty by every judge in the land. He misled the fucking queen! Blud, even the biggest gangster in jail right now has never got to that level.”

He’s speaking shortly after the British Supreme Court found Prime Minister Boris Johnson guilty of unlawfully suspending Parliament in an attempt to pass the latest iteration of his Brexit deal. Since then the madness has only escalated and DrillMinister, the anonymous, balaclava-clad drill artist who has appeared on Newsnight and Good Morning Britain and plans to run for London Mayor next year, is one of many UK rappers trying to make sense of it. Just check “No Deal Brexit” (other titles include “N.I Backstop” and “Political Drillin”), on which Drilly raps: “Who’s good, who’s bad? Don’t matter cah the country’s mad.”

In 2017, when then Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in an attempt to strengthen her hand in negotiating Brexit, the Labour Party surprised everyone by vastly outperforming their poll ratings, resulting in the Conservatives losing their governing majority. Instrumental in Labour’s performance were the 250,000 18 to 24-year-olds who registered to vote in the buildup to the election (two-thirds of whom voted Labour, according to exit polls). Turnout among young people was up 43% from the 2015 election, thanks in part to rappers like Stormzy, Jme, P Money and Novelist encouraging their fans to vote, specifically pledging support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It’s grime wot won it, screamed the headlines (even though Corbyn hadn’t really won at all). Two and a half years later, as another election looms, will Britain’s rappers do it again?

Grime artists’ support for Corbyn actually made a lot of sense. As the genre’s founding fathers grew up in the early 2000s — almost all of them in council estates in North and East London boroughs like Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets — Tony Blair’s New Labour began the so-called “urban regeneration” project that would lead to the gentrified London we know today. As detailed in Dan Hancox’s book Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, Blair designed a new metropolis where skyscrapers rose high and rent prices rose higher, where hoodies were banned in shopping centers, and innocent young black men were routinely stopped and searched by police.

When grime was born — comprising angsty lyrics and rough instrumentals made in youth centers and secondary schools — many rappers had their gigs shut down by authorities on unfounded suspicions of violence. “We don’t listen to no politician,” spat Skepta on 2015’s “Shutdown,” epitomizing grime’s nihilistic distrust of all things political.


Corbyn was different, a straight-talking pragmatist whose pledges to “the many, not the few” felt sincere, demonstrable even in the photos of the young activist being arrested for protesting against South African apartheid. The grime generation’s support felt natural. Crucially, the artists had reached out to Corbyn, not vice-versa; this wasn’t Gordon Brown claiming to like the Arctic Monkeys. “I think it would have come across as really cringeworthy if Corbyn was trying to act like he listened to grime music,” says Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper, who worked on the Grime4Corbyn campaign. “I think what he really cares about are low-income people who want a change in their lives.”

The Grime4Corbyn campaign comprised a strong social media presence and a series of parties with support from some rappers, but in the months that followed a few artists began to distance themselves, with Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, and Lethal Bizzle all criticizing the Labour leader. When I mention the movement to Novelist, the 22-year-old Lewisham, South London rapper who announced he’d joined the Labour Party in 2016, he’s quick to jump in. “Oi bro I’m not part of that Grime4Corbyn stuff,” he says. “When I made those statements about Jeremy Corbyn that absolutely had nothing to do with grime. That was just me, my singular self saying what I was saying. If a bunch of other grime guys did the same thing I feel like it should be respected, but I don’t think it’s too much to do with it being grime.”

Nov also says he’s no longer in the Labour Party, preferring instead to try and make a difference on his own. He didn’t vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum either: “My life at the time was very turbulent, so I wasn’t really focusing on what was going on politically,” he says, and notes similar reasons for a lack of engagement from other young people in his community. “We’re more thinking about real life, close-to-home struggles that man are going through. We know these things have a whole butterfly effect, but when you’re going through certain things you’re not really paying attention to the news or any of that, cos this is real life over here.”

Anyone wondering what real life looks like in inner-city London could do a lot worse than watching the latest series of Top Boy, Ronan Bennett’s dark social drama in which rappers like Kano and Little Simz portray a side of the capital rarely seen on screen. In the opening scene to the first episode of the new series, as AJ Tracey’s “Quarterback” fades out of the speakers, a group of drug dealers are told by their supplier: “Everything’s more expensive now — cars, food, coffee [and, as implied, drugs]. It’s Brexit.”

Among plot lines like a single mother being fired from her nursing job due to not having the correct immigration papers, Top Boy also features music by the likes of Headie One and SL, artists from the UK drill scene facing ongoing criticism for the ugly side of London they depict in their lyrics. Earlier this year, drillers Skengdo and AM were handed a nine-month suspended jail sentence for performing their song “Attempted 1.0” at a gig at London’s Koko, the first time in British legal history that a sentence has been issued for the performance of a song alone. Had the judge not prevented it, the Metropolitan Police would also have banned the rappers from entering the SE1 postcode — the South Bank on the river Thames.

Police have vilified the UK drill scene on the grounds that its lyrics encourage gang violence. Drill artists frequently have their songs removed from YouTube (due to rappers referring to other drill crews, using particular slang terms or even just mentioning certain postcodes) and struggle to play gigs in their own country. DrillMinister was booked to support the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA at O2’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in April this year, but on the day of the event the promoter told him he wouldn’t be allowed to perform following contact from the police. “They had about six officers downstairs waiting for me to go onstage to arrest me,” he says.

In Europe, drill artists have little trouble playing gigs. 67, arguably drill’s most important group, told Newsnight last year they’d had to cancel two tours in the UK due to pressure from police. “Last year we still done hella shows,” said Scribz, aka LD. “But we just done it in Europe.”

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What if Britain leaves the EU? “In terms of music, it’s gonna fuck man,” says Drilly. In the event of Brexit, drill artists — like all British musicians — will need to secure visas for every member of their crew before booking tours in Europe. They’ll also need a carnet, a customs document which permits the transportation of goods across borders where freedom of movement does not apply. A carnet currently costs £325.96 and requires anyone travelling to list every item of equipment or merchandise they are travelling with. For drill artists already struggling to make a living in the UK, the cost and time of touring Europe post-Brexit may scarcely be worth it.

Considering the damage done to drill by police, politicians and sections of the press, the loss of income brought on by Brexit could be critical, threatening to silence the most exciting music scene the UK has seen in a decade. Drill fans — of which there are millions — are largely the same age as those targeted by the Grime4Corbyn movement in 2017. The team behind the movement have similar plans for the upcoming election, this time with a new name: “Fuck Boris,” a mantra already used by both Stormzy (in chart-topping single “Vossi Bop”) and slowthai (at this year’s Mercury Awards, holding aloft what looked like the Prime Minister’s severed head).

Though he still supports Corbyn, Adam says the group were wary of painting the Labour leader as a saviour, and wanted a new slogan that let them be critical of Corbyn when necessary. “I also think ‘Fuck Boris’ allows us to have a wider critical conversation about what Boris Johnson represents,” he says. “Not just him as a person, but what he represents in terms of the nationalism of Brexit, the racism he’s been embroiled in, the kind of rhetoric he’s used around violence in low-income communities.”

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The disconnect between the ruling elite and Britain’s low-income households was brought into harsh focus in 2017. Less than a week after the general election, at least 72 people were killed in a fire at Grenfell Tower, a tower block in a social housing complex in West London. According to a public inquiry report, the fire spread due to flammable cladding on the outside of the building, a design feature chosen at least in part to improve the tower’s appearance for residents of nearby luxury flats. As rappers like Stormzy and Akala pledged their support to the victims of the tragedy and drill artists released tracks commemorating loved ones, then Prime Minister Theresa May refused to visit the site.

At the time of this writing, Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said on national radio that if he had been in Grenfell Tower during the fire, he would have had the “common sense” to escape. “He’s obviously a fool,” South London MC Ms Banks tells Highsnobiety. “It’s not a time to talk about common sense when we haven’t even been given the real numbers of the amount of lives lost in Grenfell.”

Banks worries about London’s low-income communities, who could be the hardest hit by Brexit if the NHS is privatized (and healthcare stops being free), migrants’ status is threatened, and workers’ rights are reduced, as looks likely if Johnson’s deal is passed. “I’ve worked in retail jobs for near enough minimum wage or just over,” says Banks. “Full time. And honestly after I’d paid all my bills I’d be lucky if I had £100 left to play with. It’s suppressive. I can’t imagine if they made incomes lower…”

“No one really knows what effect it’s gonna have,” says Adam, keen to stress that his views don’t represent those of the whole group. “But I think if we have a hard Brexit and have to do trade deals with economies like the United States we’re likely to see things like the NHS being privatized and bought out by large American healthcare providers, which is gonna have a massively detrimental effect on Britain’s lower income communities.”

He won’t say who, but Adam says the group are talking to rappers about events in the buildup to the December election. One artist who has already worked with them is DrillMinister, whose own political career could be about to begin in earnest when he runs for London Mayor in 2020. He insists that he won’t need to reveal his identity and is upbeat about his chances. “As wild as it is I can’t see why not,” he grins. “Even if I can’t win, it’s the fact that I’m inspiring somebody else to really run and push it all the way.”

As tunes like the environmentally driven “Choke” blow up, Drilly has had ratings from some big names, among them Dizzee Rascal, who took to Twitter to express his admiration earlier this year. Another fan is Virgil Abloh, who recently invited Drilly to a fashion show in Cape Town and told him that Kanye West had his eye on him. But Drilly is instead focused on matters closer to home. “You know what it is? Britain needs a hero right now,” he says. Could he really be that hero? In these crazy times, you never know.

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