Reactions were mixed to the announcement that songwriter Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Some literary aficionados were outraged that a popular musician had won the prize (rather than a novelist or poet), while others were delighted that the literary potential of song writing had finally been acknowledged at such a high level. Some criticisms pointed to Dylan’s position within the popular music canon, pointing out that he is yet another western, white man whose elevation to Nobel Laureate status reinforced white, western patriarchal hegemony.
While I was never a fan of Dylan, not for any particular reason, he has had a huge influence and impact. His music has often been political, and in the 1960s spoke to young people hoping for change and a more equitable and just society. Now that a songwriter has been recognised for his literary talents, has the space opened up for future Nobel Laureates to be drawn from other popular music genres?
The poetic qualities and linguistic dexterity of rap music have been noted by many critics. Rappers play with language in sophisticated ways, and their lyrics draw from a variety of sources in a complex intertextuality. Like Dylan, rappers often include messages in their work, and their songs have operated as anthems for marginalised youth. Many rap lyrics focus on working-class life and speak directly to working-class youth (as well as some of us old people!). The impact of rap has already been huge. Will fans look back in 40 years time and reflect on the influence and impact of rap on their lives? I expect so.
A future Nobel rapper might well come from the working class, and I can think of a number of rap artists who should be considered. While talented rappers come from all parts of the world, I’m singling out UK grime artists for special attention because they have become an important part of British popular music in the last fifteen years, even though they have, for the most part, remained underground. The underground subcultural status of grime artists (despite the Mercury Prize being awarded to grime artist Skepta in 2016) has contributed to a fear of the potential power of the music (something older fans of Dylan might recall from anxieties about rock and roll in the 1960s), compounded by the fact that the majority of UK grime artists are Black or from ethnic minorities. These young artists rapping about racism, police harassment, and inequality in a powerful and direct manner have created a fair amount of moral panic in the UK, with grime venues regularly shut down by police and grime blamed for violence and anti-social behaviour.
While a number of artists merit attention, if I had to choose a few for special mention the list would include Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Lady Leshurr, and Riz MC. Their lyrics display complex language play often involving combinations of Cockney London, African, Caribbean, and South Asian vernacular (a dialect known in the UK as Multicultural London English). They are experts at rhyme, simile, metaphor, puns, and complicated meter. They use references from British popular culture, literature, and history, and their lyrics are self-reflexive, placing themselves and working-class experiences at the centre of their songs.
Some of the artists provide social and political commentary in their songs. Wiley’s ‘My Mistakes’, for example, tells the story of the empowering effects of creative practice, including how his life was changed by picking up the mic. Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Sirens’ focuses on police harassment of young Black men, while Lady Leshurr’s ‘Queens Speech 4’ celebrates the London multicultural dialect (particularly relevant in the current era of Brexit inspired anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain).
One of my current favourite artists is Riz MC, a London rapper (and actor) of Pakistani descent. Riz MC tackles racism and Islamaphobia from the perspective of working-class ethnic minorities. His skilful rhymes provide insight into life in an immigrant community, the kinds of discrimination immigrants face on a daily basis, and how this impacts what it means to be British. His 2016 track ‘Englistan’ tells a powerful story of the liminal position he occupies. He is English, though some in the UK would not see him that way. The video highlights this sense of living between cultures through the soccer shirt worn by Riz. One half of the shirt sports the English soccer team’s colours and the letters ‘ENGL’, and the other half reads ‘ISTAN’. Set in various working-class communities, the video also draws attention to discrimination and alienation while making the multiculturalism of working-class communities visible. This contradicts some of the rhetoric around working-class people being overly racist, and it demonstrates quite clearly that working-class people in the UK are ethnically diverse (in the mainstream media, working-class is often associated exclusively with white people). ‘Englistan’ also refers to poverty, surviving on welfare, consumerism, and colonialism, and the song brings working-class people of different ethnic backgrounds and faiths together in opposition to the ruling class.
It’s possible that UK grime artists might reject an establishment award such as the Nobel Prize (much like Dylan himself), but I’d like to think that regardless of whether elite prizes are awarded, the stories and music of working-class rap are properly appreciated for their cultural significance and life-changing potential. Grime artists in the UK are working-class scribes, and their work deserves to be acknowledged.