Grime, the young and finding a political voice

In the Grime movement Keith Harris OBE finds a path forward for youth engagement in mainstream politics.

When I saw that some leading British Grime artists had decided to be vocally involved in the election campaign, it gave me hope that perhaps a corner had been turned, and that the country’s youth might again begin to get a say in their own future. It is interesting that it is a movement started predominantly by urban black youth that could be the main vehicle for encouraging a wider range of British youth to become interested in the mainstream politics that will shape their lives.

How has this section of British youth managed to find its voice? How have they managed to break out of the margins of society to get more than just a foothold in the consciousness of youth right across the social spectrum?

In a way, it is a tale of the things which are best in contemporary British youth culture: young people who believe they have something to say, and observations to share, who refuse to be restricted by the fact that the existing mainstream media are not going to readily grant them exposure. It has, however, been a long time coming.

I remember the late Anthony H Wilson (of Factory Records and Madchester fame) talking about the importance of Grime, and given that he died in 2007, it will bring some perspective to how long the movement has taken to develop.

For young people, social media and the way it has enabled them to take the means of production and distribution into their own hands, has allowed them to gain traction for their music and ideas amongst their peers. There may be echoes here of the beginnings of Motown – “The Sound of Young America” – the same ‘can do’ spirit, the same sense of young people developing a music of their own that articulated their feelings of their times. Music that these previous generations were slow to adopt, partly because it breached both long-standing racial and social barriers.

The music of the sixties brought about a social liberation of youth, and hopefully the music now will free the young from the shackles of the often-dubious thinking and attitudes of the older generations. Attitudes which have managed to bring about a society with an absurdly large pay gap across even single companies, not to mention society at large. The kind of thinking which feels that it was fine for education to be free for them, but it is equally fine that the next generation should have to pay for it, at a rate which can act as a brake on their optimism – meaning they step out into the world of employment and adulthood heavily burdened by debt.

The sheer weight of numbers of the post-war Baby Boomer generation has allowed a situation to develop where the rise to seniority in print and broadcast media of people just like themselves has enabled the reinforcement of ideas and policies driven by self-interest. The fact that popular music – a key driving force of that generation – has not seen a proper quasi-political, youth-only movement since the somewhat nihilistic punk era, has allowed for the development of a very comfortable middle class consensus. The removal of overtly political music from the mainstream has helped that smug self-satisfaction to become deeply embedded.

I have long believed that music could be used to spearhead an understanding amongst youth of how politics actually works.

My vision is that every town should have a music-based youth club, which has a remit to provide both musical facilities – whether
a studio, rehearsal space, or a performance space. The club should be run by its own teenage committee, elected by its membership. It should set its own rules of facility hire, and run its own events. It would of course have full time professional management to take care of the day-to-day ordering of supplies, which would report to the committee.

There would need to be a wide range of officers elected. A chairperson, secretary, treasurer, publicity officer. They would need to develop their own sanctions for rule infringement. The promotion of successful shows in the performance space would help to fund the whole operation. Very quickly, the young people involved would begin to see that being elected to the committee would allow them to have a say in how the operation was run.

The performers for the shows in the centre would come from the community that used it. The graphic artists and designers for the posters for the shows would also come from the community, as would the people to run the social media platforms. The music would be the catalyst for a social and business operation started by young people, and run by young people. It dawns on me that perhaps I’m describing something that already exists – the grime movement.

It is important to realise that one of the primary drivers of Britain’s success in the creative industries has been the willingness of youth to embrace new ideas and to enable them to become part of the mainstream.

As the country moves towards splendid isolation, it will be even more important for power and influence to pass down to a generation where the open mindedness and energy lie, where it has the potential to provide true renewal.