Riot, Rap and Racism in Cameron’s Britain

The riots that emanated out from the British capital to sweep the rest of England earlier this month are easily the most intense that the western world has seen since the Los Angeles uprisings in 1992. Pundits and spin-doctors who have smugly turned their noses up every time a developing nation was gripped by similar violence had the grin wiped from their faces when the “minor rebellion” in North London took hold across the city. As the violence spread to Birmingham and Manchester, Bristol and Liverpool, those same sneers turned to contemptuous snarls.

Now, the aftermath. The snarls have gone nowhere, not least of all for Prime Minister David Cameron. On August 14th he shifted his attempt at damage control into war footing, declaring at a press conference in his own Oxfordshire constituency that the ultimate culprit of the uprisings was the “slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country.” Said the arch-Tory:

Irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers, schools without discipline, crime without punishment. Reward without effort, rights without responsibility, communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature are tolerated and indulged, sometimes even incentive-ized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralized.

It’s not hard to figure out which “parts of the country” Cameron is speaking about. In fact, Cameron knows these areas well; they’re the same neighborhoods and communities he’s spent every waking hour slashing and cutting from over the past eighteen months of his tenure. That the Prime Minister said these words in front of a graffiti mural at a local youth center just about says it all.

Meanwhile, other commentators have been even more pointed. British historian David Starkey provoked over 700 complaints when he appeared on the BBC’s “Newsnight” program to insist that the problem is that:

The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion… Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England.

Even those nominally on the other side of the political aisle have joined in the chorus of cultural condemnation. Writing in the “liberal” Daily Mirror,  Paul Routledge proclaimed:

I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs… The important things in life are the latest smart phone, fashionable trainers and jeans and idiot computer games. No wonder stores selling them were priority looting targets.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve heard all of this before. After the urban rebellions that rocked the Bronx in New York City, Jimmy Carter stood in front of a burnt-out, tag-covered wall to declare how “impressed” he was with the people there before turning his back on the community for the next three years.

Ronald Reagan did the same thing during his first presidential campaign — even choosing the exact same wall and the exact same words of his soon-to-be-predecessor — before declaring war on the community centers that had barely kept the area buoyant through decades of neglect. In the wake of LA, it was Bush the First’s turn, followed by Clinton.

Perhaps the players have been switched out, along with some minor script changes, but the story remains the same: moral depravity, tied up to one degree or another in hip-hop culture, seeking to invade a respectable, mannerly western civilization and rot it from the inside. It doesn’t take a political mind to see how racist this is.

Fortunately, this line of thought hasn’t gone unchallenged. Along with the refreshingly sober assessments from the principled sections of Britain’s anti-racist movement, some of the best responses have come from within the country’s vibrant hip-hop scene.

It seems fair to say that Lethal Bizzle is no fan of David Cameron. In a piece published in The Guardian on August 12th, the heavy-hitter of London’s grime scene was unflinching: “Your country’s burning down, and you’re in fucking Italy drinking tea, and eating croissants–for three days!” Bizzle continues, frankly telling author Dan Hancox that “the Conservatives have never cared about working-class people.”

Bizzle, born Maxwell Ansah to Ghanaian immigrant parents, also references his own song “Babylon’s Burning the Ghetto.” It’s a song that could have dropped the day after the riots, but was in fact released four years ago in 2007! (Indeed, the feeling that we’ve been here before is only highlighted by the track’s sampling of British punk band the Ruts’ “Babylon’s Burning” — itself prophetic of the riots in South London neighborhood of Brixton four months after the song’s December, 1980 release!)

Grime has never made the waves in the American hip-hop scene that it’s made in its native country — and in this writer’s estimation that’s a damned shame. Its beats are often at whiplash speed, minimal and gritty — the sound of jagged, rusty metal jutting up from hunks of concrete. This firm rooting might explain why grime has retained so much of its credibility over the past several years, and why many of its biggest names seeking to leave the subject matter behind and cross-over (Dizzee Rascal, Tynchy Stryder) have also had to ditch certain elements of the sound.

Stateside, the best description of grime has come from The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones: “grime sounds as if it had been made for a boxing gym, one where the fighters have a lot of punching to do but not much room to move.”

That’s a pretty accurate picture of how Britain’s underclass feels. As the riots gained steam and London Mayor Boris Johnson brought his mug out into the open at a “cleanup effort,” one young Black man had an opportunity to take him to task. “There’s a reason for everything, Boris,” he boldly told him. “Think of all the time you’ve spent cutting and cutting and cutting! And then you’re putting off youth fees [for college]. I’ve got so much friends [sic] who want to go to university but have stopped. You’re spending hundreds of millions of pounds a week in Libya when you could be over here! Sort yourselves out over here first!”

So much for Cameron’s “moral collapse.” It’s this basic, hard reality that has made the UK into such a powder-keg. For sure, the cuts didn’t start with Johnson and Cameron — that honor goes to Margaret Thatcher. Though they continued unabated under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, the current government has been brazenly unforgiving in their notion of “shared sacrifice.”

Nor is this the first that’s being seen of Cameron’s blame-the-victim mentality. The Prime Minister did, after all, take time in his speech at this past February’s Munich Security Conference to state that “multiculturalism has failed,” an utterance that none but the most right-wing of politicians would have previously dared to make in public. And though the argument was primarily directed toward Europe’s Muslim community, there was little doubt that any non-white listening to the speech was also on notice.

Worth remembering is what initially touched off the riots in Tottenham — a protest against the police shooting death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man. The message is clear: billions can be spent on war, millions more on the Summer Olympics, but when it comes to the needs of the underprivileged, the best they can hope for is a jackboot on their neck. With both conservatives and liberals now turning their sights toward urban hip-hop instead of the real root of the riots, that view is merely confirmed. That much of Britain’s rap scene includes the children of immigrants — like, for example, Bizzle — merely puts a sharper point on the attacks they have in store.

It’s no surprise then that the grime scene has yet again taken more of an unapologetic platform in the riots’ aftermath than most other communities. Says Hancox in his article:

In the era of frenetic 24-hour news, live-blogging and Twitter, the response has been quick, honest and instinctive. I was initially directed to Tottenham on Saturday evening after seeing a tweet from Wretch 32 that enigmatically read: ‘Wish I was there. If you know u know.’ It didn’t take long to work out where, and what, he was referring to. His fellow MCs Skepta and Chipmunk, all from Tottenham, had already posted RIP messages in memory of Mark Duggan. Another leading Tottenham MC, Scorcher, tweeted that Saturday night: ‘25 years ago police killed my grandma in her house in Tottenham and the whole ends rioted, 25 years on and they’re still keepin up fuckry’; it was the death of his grandmother Cynthia Jarrett, who died of a stroke following a police raid on her home, which sparked the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 (Scorcher was born the following year).

This isn’t to say that all of grime have simply been cheer-leading the riots. Hancox also quotes Wiley, largely recognized as one of grime’s greatest innovators as being despondent over what may come next–understandably so — and also quite cynical about Britain’s future. Tinie Tempah, who over the past couple years has moved from grime into a more mainstream UK hip-hop sound, sent out a message on his Twitter account that “The more riots the more repressive action will take place & the more we face the danger of a right-wing & eventually a fascist society,” a quote he attributed to Martin Luther King.

Perhaps Tempah’s reaction was a bit moralistic, but in a country where far-right groups like the English Defence League regularly take to the streets, it’s also understandable.

Nonetheless, the response from the country’s at-large grime community in the wake of the riots has been substantial, varied, and practically overnight. On top of the ubiquitous tweets and Facebook messages, there have been countless songs from underground artists all over the UK — recorded on computers or in small studios — going up on MySpace pages, many going viral. Countless other vids have popped up setting footage of the riots to the music’s grating, aggressive beats. Most don’t appear to be celebrating so much as warning.

Warning of what? Put quite simply, more of the same — which is what the British government can only expect if it delivers, well, more of the same. As it looks now, that’s precisely what the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties are prepared to dole out.

Given this, it seems obvious why hip-hop became one of the establishment’s first targets. When a system is bolstered by lies, telling the truth becomes a dangerous act. “There are many ways to prevent riots,” says Bizzle, “but the first thing is jobs — I mean fucking hell, where are the jobs? There are no jobs!”

For as horrified as Cameron and company are acting now, what they really fear is this kind of anger becoming turning into action. That may not be too far off. To watch the events of the past few weeks, to take these rebel artists at their word, it seems rather clear that today’s young folks are sick of the raw deal, and are ready to be heard by any means necessary.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.