Ruth Adams (Kings College London, UK)

Grime – Expanding the Parameters of English Folk Music [BACK]

Abstract: This paper makes the case for Grime music to be understood as English Folk Music or, more specifically, as a folk music of a diasporic England.  In doing so it draws on Winter and Keegan-Phipps’ (2015) use of the concept of ‘performing Englishness’ to allow an ‘approach that offers a non-essentialist way of thinking about […] identities as produced, rather than being naturally given.’ Grime is a distinctively English music, but represents, or performs, an Englishness shaped by the cultural mosaic of contemporary London. Grime and the stories it tells paint a vivid picture, not just of individual lives in particular communities, but the larger canvas of a global city in perpetual transformation, and postcolonial socio-linguistics and cultures. Although a predominantly black musical form, both musically and lyrically Grime illustrates a process of cultural blending which creates new modes of identity and expression. This paper argues that Grime articulates new types of identity, novel manifestations of being a Londoner, of being English. The explicitness of claims such as MC Crazy Titch’s ‘I’m from East London, I talk Cockney ‘cause that’s how we all talk round ‘ere. […]  I’m so British, I’m fish and chips, I’m pie and mash’ can also be seen as a response to the fact that the Englishness of Black Britons is often challenged or denied; as such it constitutes a radical political act.  In post-Brexit Britain, making the case for the essential Englishness of London’s urban music scenes becomes an urgent and necessary assertion.

Bio: Ruth Adams is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s College London, where she has worked since 2003. Her current research interests focus include Grime music as an expression of national identity and heritage in the post-colonial city; representations of country houses and the aristocracy in popular culture; and popular engagement with national media events. She is interested in the idea of ‘Englishness’, how nostalgia and perceptions of the past shape our understanding of the present, legacies of colonialism, and how socio-economic circumstances influence cultural choices.

6 thoughts on “Ruth Adams (Kings College London, UK)”

  1. Great talk/vid!
    I was wondering whether this folk music-expression of specific localities/neighborhoods has popped up in places with varying demographics? As in, are there neighborhoods/cities/towns where “their grime” predominantly comes from communities of asian immigrants, white brits, people of specific religious backgrounds etc.?

    The background for the question is that here in Norway, rap music/hip hop was imported before there were a significant immigrant population, so the groups that adopted it as their folk music were predominantly white – but typically from less affluent outskirts of first Oslo (Groruddalen), then Bergen (Loddefjord). Now, these places are more mixed race demographically, and this is also reflected in the local hip hop cultures, but for the formative years of Norwegian rap, it was white rappers/producers creating the local flavors of “urban folk”. Has similar things happened in the UK?

    1. Hi Kjell

      Thanks for your feedback and your questions. I’m on slightly shaky ground in terms of my knowledge outside of the scene in London (and some of the other big conurbations like Birmingham and Manchester), but I’ll have a go at answering.

      Even in cities with large Asian populations I’m not aware of any exclusively Asian Grime scenes, they seem to be rather more mixed in terms of ethnicity (although Julia might have some alternative insight here), but different scenes in different towns and cities certainly do reflect their locales very specifically. This is a good example from Bradford in the north of England (where almost a third of the population is of Asian heritage):

      There are all white local scenes though, the most notorious probably being Blackpool, where over 95% of the population are white.

  2. Thanks Ruth! I love the way that several of the papers in this session are telling parallel stories about Grime and how they come together to suggest some fascinating emergent narratives and interpretations. In particular, there is the narrative of small-scale ‘ownership’ of a phenomenon that becomes hugely popular – the tension between the pride, reward and opportunity of success and the fact that something that was an expression of local identity becomes diffuse, different and beyond your control. That’s such a familiar trope of scene-based musical activity – the impact of sudden popularity on the participants’ sense of ownership and authenticity. I hadn’t really thought of that in relation to folk music scenes before – I’m imagining a very cool clique of 18th century Northumbrian pipers saying ‘well of course the real scene was at the Black Bull in Morpeth back in 1702 before it got popular with the glassworkers in Newcastle – and these guys who’ve pimped their pipes with extra drones in Gateshead, they’re not real pipers’.
    And, of course, putting Grime into the context of longer historical streams is really important. We so easily fall into the trap of thinking we’re unique in history – which of courswe we are in some ways – but we can always learn a lot from thinking about that bigger picture. Very thought provoking – thank you.

    1. Thanks Simon.

      Constested and perceived authenticity – however problematic to establish in any objective sense – is a huge element of most popular music, and is really writ large in music that makes explicit claims to be ‘of the people’. I think the tension here between ‘keeping it real’ and progression (aesthetic, commercial and socio-economic) is really interesting, and perpetually negotiated rather than resolved.

      I think too that (re)establishing the place of the urban within the broader category of ‘folk’ music, is an ongoing struggle, but a really important one as it prevents a drift into a particularly reactionary – and exclusionary – nostalgic nationalism. I’m working on research with a great folk band from London called Stick in the Wheel. They interpret a lot of standards, but they also write original material that deals with contemporary concerns. One of my favorites is ‘Me n Becky’ which is a first person account of a young woman caught up in the London riots: They sing in authentic London accents, but have experienced resistance from certain quarters of the folk ‘establishment’ as a consequence.

      I think local rivalries have been embedded in folk cultures and folk musics for a long time. I’m thinking about brass band competitions, perhaps, or the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival in Padstow. A world away from Grime, but performative and stylised localism all the same.

  3. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks very much for your paper. I enjoyed listening to it and my students this term have enjoyed reading your article in Popular Music and Society.

    I’m really interested in this idea of grime as folk music and while you were talking, I was thinking about aspects of text, storytelling and dissemination re: grime in relation to other folk musics. Since in other folk genres the music has been orally disseminated you kind of end up with no official version of a song/track but, rather, different versions of what is ostensibly the same song. I’m thinking, e.g. of something like “House of the Rising Sun,” which has lots of different performances and interpretations as a folk “text.” But in grime, as you say in your paper, dissemination is oral but also technological (raves, pirate radio, homemade mixtapes, etc.), so the tracks are fixed but also not fixed, stable and unstable. In this respect, grime shares practices with other Afro-disaporic popular arts (that are also intertextual), e.g. hip-hop/sampling and dub/versions.

    Sorry this is becoming a totally rambling question! I suppose what I’m asking is: In the context of grime-as-folk, how are you approaching ideas of text, version, troping, intertextuality, dissemination, and storytelling?

    Thanks again.

    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Mimi

    Thanks for your nice comments and my apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I’ve been caught up with marking, etc.

    That is a terrific question, and one I must admit I don’t have an adequate answer to at the moment because this project is very much at an early, exploratory stage. You have identified some really key themes which I will certainly aim to tackle. I don’t think Grime will necessarily produce ‘standards’ or a ‘song book’ in the way orally transmitted folk music did, but there is certainly versioning – I guess the freestyle and the mixtape are the most obvious modes/sites for this, Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’ was a version given that it was a new lyric over what was, by Grime standards, a ‘heritage’ track. Likewise Lethal Bizzle’s all-star sequel to ‘Pow!’, six years after the original release.

    Tropes are certainly a constant. Lots of MCs have tics or phrases that make them easily identifiable, particularly important perhaps in battles or tracks with multiple vocalists. D Double E’s ‘bluku bluku’ makes him easy to pick out in a crowd.

    I think a distinction probably needs to be made between the pre and post digital media eras of grime, and the shift from communities defined by geography to communities defined by interest, but within which a vivid sense of place persists. The former probably has more parallels with ‘traditional’ folk, but clearly the opportunities opened up for easy production and dissemination, and intertextuality have expanded exponentially with the emergence of social media, YouTube etc.

    It’s also been really interesting to compare how both folk and grime musicians have been working during the lockdown, with both producing collaborative audio-visual projects that simply wouldn’t have been possible pre-internet.

    Sorry to be a bit vague at this stage, but it is a work in progress, and hopefully I’ll have something more concrete for you in the coming months.

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