Safeguarding Black British Culture Is Okay (And Necessary)

Words: Yemi Abiade

The UK has been a hotbed for music and culture over the last few weeks. Across the TL and IRL, major players from all over the world have landed to bask in a culture that is in the sun right now. It feels like everyone was at London and Birmingham’s edition of Wireless Festival earlier this month, with everyone from J. Cole and Lil Baby to Nicki and Cardi showing their love for the nation and its inhabitants by bringing their talents to our shores.

This year alone, we’ve seen mercurial Memphis rapper NLE Choppa send for deposed Prime Minister Boris Johnson on “In The UK”, Massachusetts rapper BIA dedicate one of her biggest singles to date, “London”, to the UK capital, and Louisville’s Jack Harlow try his hand at British slang, moves that speak to the newfound appreciation many across the pond now have for us; feelings that weren’t always so vocal. Meanwhile, the likes of Giggs, Stormzy, Dave, Little Simz, Skepta and countless other homegrown talents are taking their music—and by extension, ours—to places unforeseen over a decade ago.

It’s taken us a long time to get here, to the vanguard of worldwide visibility, acclaim and influence, but the destination is all the more satisfying once you take the journey into account. Those old enough will remember having little to shout about when it came to Black British music in the early 2010s, a time when electropop-rap was all the rage and other more nuanced sounds—from grime to UK funky—were persona non grata in the mainstream arena. So much so that UK rappers were hopping on dated collaborations with US stars to garner attention. No shade here; they did what they had to do, but it did little to help the cause of representing Black Brits authentically. After a few years in the wilderness, the penny would soon drop.

The resurgence of grime in 2014-16—and the resultant explosion of the scene into what it is today—would overturn that era and set the tone for what would soon envelope the world. Almost like the flick of a switch, our artists stopped trying to impress outside forces and homed in on that undefeatable quality; their own unique version of themselves, their experiences and their musical zeal. Rather than caping for and presenting themselves as amiable to audiences here and abroad, they followed their hearts artistically and wore their culture with pride.

That’s why Skepta, clad in an all-black tracksuit in front of visual memorabilia of grime’s golden era in the “That’s Not Me” music video, screaming “I used to wear Gucci, I put it all in the bin ‘cause that’s not me” was so significant—it was a rejection of conformity and what artists thought they had to be, an embrace of what Black Brits are, who we are, our confidence, swagger, dialect and refusal to be ignored or anything but ourselves. Here was Black British culture, unadulterated and present—an attitude that could never be stripped away. And though just one aspect of the culture, grime’s comeback inspired other voices to shine, offering a foundation for UK drill to thrive, for Afroswing to flourish, for so-called ‘alt-rap’ to prosper. This change in mindset, and the pride that came with it, can be attributed to where we stand in the here and now, and it’s been intoxicating.

Suddenly, it has become very cool to be a Brit; Drake became an honorary member of Boy Better Know with the tattoo ink to show for it, as well as offering legendary slots on his 2017 ‘playlist’ More Life to Jorja Smith, Skep and Giggs. Kanye West brought the whole scene out at the 2015 Brit Awards; Kendrick Lamar name-checked Little Simz as one of his favourite MCs; Nigerian superstar Burna Boy cited Sneakbo as a major influence; and Black British culture would be front and centre on one of Netflix’s most popular TV shows of late, Top Boy—wins upon wins that speak to the dynamism of a scene that now stands on its own two feet. Fans now had new players to root for, from rappers Stormzy and Dave to actors John Boyega and Daniel Kaluuya, people who walked and talked like them and share their experiences, now exporting our culture everywhere.

Helped in no small part by the social media age and the increased visibility of UK names as a result, our way of life has found new interest and investment both at home and away. Black British music and culture is now indelible in the world’s fabric. On top of our stars topping the charts on a regular, shutting down festivals and winning prestigious awards, we see our influence as far away as New York, which has repurposed UK drill to bring about a new sonic age for the city, and Brazil, where Brazilian grime (or “Brime”) is as healthy and popular as it’s ever been as a subculture for the kids of the favelas. Not to mention both drill and grime enveloping nations as far as France, Italy, Japan and Australia.

Now that we are very much front and centre, there may feel a need among many to preserve the culture, namely by ensuring it isn’t diluted or misrepresented. While we all bear that responsibility, we have a cohort of exports not only protecting the borders but bridging the gap between other cultures, allowing for more communication, collaboration and common ground with people of all creeds. Which is why when Dave and Burna Boy link up on “Location” or Kaluuya takes a leading role in Get Out, it ultimately makes us stronger. We should be protective but also prepared to share a bit of ourselves, through music, film, sport and other verticals, with the good faith that we will be represented to the fullest.

As authentic as it has been gratifying, we show no signs of putting our foot on the brakes, because it’s taken so long for us to be recognised for our contribution to music and pop culture. We have shaken the monkey off our backs and moved with the purpose of demonstrating who we are, setting vital examples for the young bucks coming through who want to make music, take up a sport, or act; they now see themselves in their heroes, empowered to follow a similar path. This has not only struck a chord with observers here but also with all who have watched on around the globe. So long as we continue to move with pride and purpose, our relevance will always be assured.

Posted on July 19, 2022