Imma Let You British: why are the English so weird about hip hop?
When I was a teenager, I rapped in a band. This, to me, was not a massive deal. In the same way that punk and indie bands had inspired my peers to pick up guitars and drumsets, the music of my childhood, from Outkast to Jurassic 5 to Rage Against The Machine to Jay-Z, made me want to pick up a mic. To some of the people I was at school with though, this event was clearly on a parallel with a meteor strike, rain of frogs or double rainbow in the reaction it warranted. I was shouted at in corridors. I was instructed to rap on the spot by people I’d never met, whose voices had a level of disbelief as if I was going around telling people I could shit fireworks and sneeze unicorns. Most unnervingly and confusingly, someone anonymously put a picture of my head on a clipart, that’s right, a clipart, of a rapper’s body, replete with giant chain and backwards baseball cap, on the common room’s notice board. There are no teacher guidelines for rapper-clipart-related abuse. I don’t really blame them for doing nothing.
This is bullying, and it happens to a lot of people. I mention it not to grind my teeth about it, but as the personal base of experience to venture an opinion about the British and hip hop culture – we don’t know how to feel about it.
Kanye West is not the first Glastonbury headliner to garner mass disapproval, as this article by the List points out, but it is telling that two of the other three it mentions (Jay-Z and Beyonce) are broadly describable as hip hop artists. I’ve not been a massive fan of Kanye since his Graduation days, but a petition almost the size of the festivals mammoth attendance itself to prevent his booking at the festival is a significant event. What gets these people so riled up that, rather than just not go to an event with someone they don’t like in it, they will adopt it as a social justice cause? What is it about hip hop that gets people in such a huff?
Part of it, I believe, is unavoidably class snobbery. Hip hop’s support base and roots in working class culture, which have broadly transposed to the UK, makes it subject to the lazy, demonizing stereotype of the Chav, the low-income, uneducated cultureless man that the architect of Kanye’s stage-crashing incident Lee Nelson has built a flailing comedy career out of embodying. Many believe this act to be just (but somewhat late and unasked-for?) revenge for Kanye’s storming of the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of a VMA award in 2009.
But, however inappropriate, the latter was done in seemingly spontaneous and passionate support of Beyonce’s zeitgeist-setting music video. But Nelson, and supporters of him and the petition, seem not to stand for anything, but merely against a culture they see not just as something outside their tastes, but as a direct affront to their cultural and social values. Stereotypes about hip hop and its fans in our country run deep, reinforced by decades of dubious media representation. Much in the way that Kazakhstan might never shake the reputation Baron Cohen’s Borat has given it amongst those who don’t really understand his irony, I have met literally hundreds of people who, when talking about hip hop, can’t restrain themselves from doing the Ali-G crossed-W-hands gesture like someone involuntarily doing crap sign language alongside their speech.
Another part of it is simply a cultural disconnection. Speaking in very simplified terms ,while the US, France, Germany and many other places experienced a chart breakthrough of hip hop artists in the “Golden Age” of the early 90s, hip hop never broke through into the mainstream in the UK to the same extent, dwarfed by the shadow of autochthonous genres like brit-pop, house and drum and bass. Though there was then, and is now, a busy underground scene, occasionally bubbling up into the limelight when a teacher battles his student or a grime MC makes the jump to commercial house, hip hop to many is simply an american genre, and thus putting a hip hop artist in the spotlight is an act of cultural imperialism against our proud musical heritage. And yet, there is great demand for the music, leading to the bizarre schism between Glastonbury’s promoters, who keep booking popular and bestselling hip hop artists, and “hardcore” Glastonbury fans who refuse to simply go an sit next to another tent for an hour.
Hip hop has been traditionally about breaking down barriers, sampling from a million and one musical sources and styles, connecting people through shared interests that extend beyond music into dance and visual art. But in Britain it seems to often simply put up barriers, or strengthen pre-existing ones around class, culture and race. Can we not find room to tolerate each others’ musical tastes, or do we consign one of them to being, as one friend of a friend on facebook commented “shit karaoke”? Or am I imagining things?
Jack keeps a whole load of shit karaoke on his Music page, and will soon be releasing more.