Note: I have started to get a little tired with my music collection, so to overcome this I will be trying to post a different song every week for a while. Think of it as a highbrow version of friends of the blog One a Day (just kidding guys, love you).
I came across ‘Ill Manors’ recently while flicking through Vimeo (note: “manor” is slang for large tower blocks on “council estates” – British public housing). I have always been a fan of Grime – sub-genre of UK Hip Hop – but I have not been following it for the last few years (probably a consequence of my having grown up in London and then moved to Australia, one would think).
The song and the accompanying video (and upcoming album and movie by the same name) are about last year’s London riots. Rapping with spectacular energy over what I’m told is a Shostakovich sample, Plan B gets across the incredible rage felt by Britain’s underclass that resulted in the mayhem that we watched over the British summer. There is nothing quite like Grime’s staggered beats and quick staccato vocals to sound raw and angry in a way that American Hip Hop could never quite achieve. I always felt like there was something a little too Hollywood about the US “gangsters” and their overdone songs about parties and largess. Grime though? That’s just channeled rage.
The lyrics to the song enunciate stereotypes of poor, uneducated “chavs”, who live violent lives and have a particular resentment of those who are more fortunate, yet Plan B seems to embrace these tropes. The reality is slightly more sophisticated, as revealed by Dorian Lynskey, who reviewed the song for the Guardian;Plan B was making the point that the derogatory stereotypes are self-fulfilling as the dejected and marginalised youth are drawn to embrace them. Below is a quote from Plan B himself:
For me that term [“chav”] is no different from similar terms used to be derogatory towards race and sex, the only difference being that the word chav is used very publicly in the press … When you attack someone because of the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, or their lack of education, and you do it publicly and it’s acceptable to do that, you make them feel alienated. They don’t feel like a part of society … For every person who uses the word chav there is a less educated person ready to embrace it. They say, well, look, I’m never going to change the way you think of me so actually I’m going to play up to it and fuel the fire. In essence that’s what Ill Manors is about.
Personally, I do not accept Plan B’s thesis entirely (for a more extensive version, see this TEDx talk). I was not completely surprised when the riots broke-out as I immediately saw an element of London’s youth culture that I recognised.
It may or may not be true that London’s poor embraced the stereotypes thrust on them by society and I was not around to see how the “chav” culture developed. What I did see was its explosion and its glorification; when I was a teenager in London, I witnessed the bizarre phenomenon whereby the most popular kids from the most privileged backgrounds at the most exclusive public schools (and that’s “public school” in the British sense) aspired to the ideal of living like their contemporaries in council housing.
To put that another way, they wanted to “act poor” – not through having less money, but by playing-out the stereotypes that Plan B so resents. Teenagers whose parents spoke with BBC-worthy received pronunciation were talking as if they had been born and raised in public housing and always lived on welfare benefits. The attendant fashion trend was truly bizarre – while actual chavs wore fake Burberry tartan hats and Nike tracksuits, unable to afford the genuine article, my schoolmates were wearing the real versions, but the ones that closest resembled the widely-available forgeries in order to imitate people who could not afford what they were wearing.
They were also failing at school and committing petty crimes like their idols were supposed to, listening to underground Garage and Grime music and hanging-out with kids from the state schools on weekends. Parties when I was growing up often resembled miniature versions of the London riots – especially when a “crew” like this managed to get to the house of a wealthy peer who they were not particularly friendly with.
This may even be the answer to the centuries-old left wing dream of downward mobility for the upper classes. I guarantee that my schoolmates with misdemeanour convictions and failing grades will not be replicating their parents’ success. So here’s the formula: in a society still flailing as it falls from power, make “poor” cool and watch a whole generation of middle-to-upper-class youth become welfare-dependent petty criminals like their glamorised idols. Good times.
Remember, the Sun never sets on the British Empire.