Detailing the Windrush Generation Influence on Grime Music
The One Block Down editorial archive is an ever-evolving resource detailing the cultures, movements and ideas that defined contemporary stylistic discourse. From unique takes on today’s leading pop-culture topics, to off-kilter stories that might have slipped through the net, our editorial archive is as fundamental as it is abstract.
The authenticity of the grime movement is something unique throughout the world and, especially in America, seems unreplicable. And that is their real strength: uniqueness and compactness.
Looking at the evolution of grime music today, no one would imagine how central Britain’s immigration and cultural evolution is. For many, the Grime imaginary is just a context of guns, drugs, sports cars, street gang fights, and music that only enhances a hedonistic lifestyle. Over the past few years, the British cultural fabric has increasingly embraced grime music and artists as the true subversive movement of modern times. Skepta's 2016 Mercury Prize win with "Konnichiwa" had marked a historic moment: not only had the entire grime phenomenon won, but also all those people who had struggled to make British society a melting pot of cultures. All those people who were part of the "Windrush Generation" were represented by Skepta's victory on that stage, as well as Dave's just three years later.
Therefore, to discuss the origins of grime music, it is necessary to create a bridge between the past and the present. It is not only a musical or purely generational issue but a set of events connected by a thin temporal red line.
The history of grime is made up of many kinds of music, improvised freestyle, illegal radio, and historical events (such as Eskimo Dance, for example), but its process has much deeper roots steeped in the British social fabric. Within the English social and musical structure, discrimination against black and Asian ethnic minorities, mainly from the most marginalized suburbs of the large metropolises, has been a particular phenomenon shaping the relationship between freedom of expression and social coexistence. The association with violence and criminal behavior are the closest stereotypes to the grime culture, and so the hatred from the institutional forces has been incited to enormous levels.
Certainly, constantly living in lawlessness and fear of ongoing repercussions was not a choice sought by grime artists. At the same time, this forced situation has allowed for the creation of a great synergy in the entire grime scene, composed not only of rappers but also of video makers, writers, graffiti artists, and DJs. Clearly, in British society, grime represented a threat to pop music that was ubiquitous in every corner at the time. These harsh sounds and imagery were also portrayed in the media as the quintessential London suburbs, hotspots for drug dealing and other outlaw crimes. It was easy to accuse the grime of being one of the problems to be solved as soon as possible, through censorship and the pressing presence of the police to limit as much as possible the spread.
To define grime music simply as a sub-genre of hip-hop is conceptually wrong and culturally wrong. Grime music is just the tip of the iceberg that has its roots in the so-called Windrush Generation.
Since the 1950s, the black community has been seen with a negative connotation, mainly linked to illegal activities. The colonialist solid presence of the United Kingdom has irreversibly influenced the history of the black community and, consequently, the evolution and development of grime music. First of all, it is essential to mention and analyze the event that most constructed the interpersonal relationship between white British and black people who emigrated, mainly, from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago: it was on 22 June 1948 when the ship "Empire Windrush" landed in the port of Tilbury with about 500 people in search of a new life away from poverty. It was a vast, unexpected influx of people, which led to many protests. In return for their labor, the newcomers were guaranteed that they could stay forever.
At that moment, a new wind came like a thunderbolt, the upheaval of a completely pragmatically focused and idealized society. Anglo-Saxon society saw these multiple landings as an advantage in terms of cheap labor. After having arrived at the end of its physical and financial strength, the reconstruction of the economy also passed through this migratory stage. The people who came on that ship were nicknamed the Windrush generation, a label that still has considerable influence today.
One famous moment that captured the spirit of the Windrush was a song by Trinidadian singer Aldwin Roberts (aka 'Lord Kitchener'). He performed the specially written song 'London Is the Place for Me' live. There are still Youtube videos of the landing, filmed by Pathé News, now known as British Pathé, a company that produced several documentaries about the UK between 1910 and 1970. Even from the song’s name, it is easy to guess what it meant to land in a new world, where hopes could be realized. It sounded like the apogee of an unattainable dream of life. His song was also played at the end of the first Paddington film in 2014.
In the years to come, the influence of that wave of immigration would be felt in the grime sounds. Dirty sounds, pounding but full of facets that touched so many cultures. So when Caribbean artists and music lovers arrived, they brought an explosion of jazz, blues, gospel, Latin, and Calypso to the scene, at a time when London was all about swing and dance bands. From a mixture of Jamaican reggae and British dance music, Drum and Bass and Dubstep were born. Jamaican influences also led to new genres, such as Garage, Jungle, and Grime. Many of today's grime and garage artists are children of the Windrush Generation.
The influx began to slow down around 1971 when the Immigration Act 1962 banned Commonwealth citizens from entering the UK because of the 'large influx of immigrants. Among the hundreds of people who came with the Empire was an engineer who had joined the British army during the Second World War, only to return to his native Jamaica in 1947. Life in his homeland was not the best, and the chances of building a decent future were poor. At that point, an advertisement in the famous newspaper The Gleaver sponsoring tickets for the Empire Windrush turned on the young man's light bulb, namely to return to England and try to stay there. That young man, Sam Beaver King, would become the first black mayor of Southwark (London) in 1983 and also the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival. King was one of those people who could chart a new beginning, where there was no room for discrimination but only for cooperation. In his autobiography 'Climbing Up The Rough Side Of The Mountain,’ he wrote: 'I was not greeted by many people; not a smile crossed the faces of those who were too busy working overtime as a guard. I spoke only when necessary... One, in particular, was very obnoxious whenever I worked overtime. He made hurtful comments and was uncooperative. Others joined me, but I was there to do a job, and nothing would make me break down or even show resentment."
When the 70th anniversary of the famous landing was celebrated on 22 June 2018, the British government set out to review the immigration situation in the country, and the 1948 arrivals themselves were involved in the controls. When immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive, they were British citizens to all intents and purposes.
In the following years, the Caribbean countries slowly declared independence from the British Empire, and suddenly they were no longer British citizens. But those who had come here before their country's independence, often invited to come, though they had remained British. Many who had come as children never became British citizens.
In 2010, the papers relating to the Windrush landing were destroyed, creating a situation of generational chaos. Thousands of people found themselves with no identity and no recognition that they had been in the UK for decades. This raised a big fuss that escalated between 2012 and 2013 when Theresa May, the then British Prime Minister, and the government led by David Cameron implemented a heavily restrictive policy towards migrants creating a 'hostile environment.’ The aim was to reduce the large number of arrivals due to immigration, and a BBC investigation also found that the Cameron government had set itself the target of deporting 12,000 illegal migrants between 2015 and 2016. Thus, even the most important tabloids, such as The Guardian, had uncovered the government's dodgy cards to create intense media pressure. This was a genuine 100% institutionalized discrimination operation, where they were trying to clean up those who were not properly of British blood.
The scandal led, in April 2018, to Amber Rudd's resignation as Secretary of State. The apology from May, at this point, seemed purely cosmetic and to bring closure to this sensitive issue as soon as possible. To remedy this, an inquiry was announced with an attached compensation scheme that included 30 points to be implemented as 'compensation for victims and greater care in immigration policies. According to current figures, at the end of March 2020, of the 1275 people who had applied, only 60 had received payments, with a total paid out of around £363,000. In its impact assessment, the government department said payments could amount to between £120 million and £310 million, assuming 15,000 people applied.
The story of the Windrush generation is the first milestone in understanding how ethnic minorities have become an integral part of British society as a workforce, but also capable of creating phenomena of enormous cultural impact, such as grime music.
The Notting Hill carnival, considered second only to that of Rio de Janeiro, is an annual event in which the desire to dress up is predominant, but it can be understood as a parade for the power of the street. In this way, it could fall under a narrow meaning of power as control and supremacy, but the true meaning is the opposite. When the Windrush disembarked with the hundreds of people of Caribbean or African descent, in addition to labor, their baggage included all the cultures and traditions of their native countries, including carnival. Many Caribbean immigrants settled mainly in the London areas of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, which at the time were some of the poorest areas of London. Hostility between the black and white communities was led by anti-black fascists such as the 'Teddy Boys.’ They roamed the streets violently attacking black immigrants and vandalizing their homes, black-owned businesses, and community centers.
The 1958 Notting Hill race riot began in August, when 300-400 "Keep Britain White" mobs (many of whom were Teddy Boys), armed with iron bars, butcher knives, and weighted leather belts, roamed the streets of Notting Hill "n****r-hunting,” violently attacking black residents of Notting Hill, shouting "Down with the n*****s" and "Go home you black bastards.” One of the most significant events during the race riot was the brutal murder of Kelso Cochrane, a black carpenter, by a gang of young white men . In response to the 1958 race riots and Cochrane's murder, it led to what is now known as the Notting Hill Carnival. It was deliberately a black event dedicated to commemorating the culture of West Indians and educating the second generation about their roots.
The carnival has also been one of the most heavily policed events in England by the Metropolitan Police of London in recent years, although it is not on the same scale as other significant events such as Glastonbury. For example, there were 3.76 arrests per 10,000 people at Notting Hill Carnival over three years (between 2016 and 2019), compared to 3.1 arrests per 10,000 people at Glastonbury. However, the British media often portrays a negative image of Notting Hill and focuses on the crime rate for headline news. At the same time, the press often emphasizes the line-up, weather, or attire for other festivals. It is a loop that repeats itself and still underpins the racial stigmatization by the British government.
There is no underlying analysis or specific criticism of implementing such stringent measures against events with black majority audiences; they are simply 'traditionally' more prone to commit crimes and cause violence. It is essential to consider that the carnival has a heavier police presence than other festivals because officers have the authority to arrest anyone who appears suspicious for no reason. Whereas in Glastonbury, they are more likely to have actually to commit a crime to be arrested. In 2017, in the run-up to the event, 656 arrests were made in an attempt to 'ensure' a smooth running of the carnival. But this appropriation by the police force, blindly and stubbornly against a particular niche, has only exacerbated the adversarial relationship with the black and minority community.
We are not far from the same dynamics in America, where rap has managed to be accepted for what it is, but on the streets, oppression against black communities continues daily. In England, repressing both expressive freedom and human freedom as the right to live without prejudice go hand in hand. The Met Police's derogatory tactics were publicly revealed in 2017, when the Metropolitan Police tweeted about the seizure of around a kilo of heroin in Catford in the run-up to Carnival, without knowing if these criminals were going to Carnival and even though the boroughs are more than twelve miles apart, as Catford is in south-east London and Notting Hill is in west London. Stormzy tweeted in response to the Met Police stating, "how many drugs did you seize during the Glastonbury run, or do we only do tweets like this for black events?".
The last update from the British government was on 22 September when it said it had allocated and disbursed more than £35 million to families affected by the scandal. Still, at this point, it is no longer about money. The issue has increasingly become an unforgettable chapter in British history. As such, it is only fitting that we pay tribute to those who laid the foundations of British society.
Telling the origins of grime is not a simple musical comparison. Like all cultural phenomena of depth in a country, you have to go deeper and deeper to understand its existence and motivations. The reason for the birth of grime can be traced back to Windrush, then to all the racial injustices that limit the creation of equally distributed societies.
It's the story of those first fans who played in closets or private rooms in their homes and broadcasted everything with illegal radio channels; it’s the story of how the government and the state have set themselves against this genre, completely ignoring the socio-cultural and multi-ethnic identity, it's a story of independence, sacrifices, and representation for a generation in disarray. It is the story of those who could absorb the influences coming from garage music, jungle, reggae, dubstep, techno and catalyze everything in a turbine of unrestrained flows. It is a story of anarchy because the grime is not looking for someone who controls it and can sweeten the true spirit, but someone who knows how to bring forward the story of an entire society and its many facets.
To receive updates on our latest editorials and documentaries, be sure to follow @oneblockdownon Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter below for more.