There’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking.
The mainstream, in its control of discourse, seems to function through aggression. It takes, dominates, appropriates, dictates and ultimately decides what Is and what Isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be. In this, non-dominant voices find themselves at the mercy of lines that have been pre-defined by society’s rulers (pun intended). And like all rulers, mainstream discourses tend to be rigid, brittle, inflexible and terrified of being bent out of shape.
Before I take the metaphor too far and lose you completely, I should explain the reasoning behind this essay’s opening statement.
A short while ago, I was busy recycling when I stumbled across a copy of ES magazine. A cursory flick-through revealed a feature spread on UK Grime artists Krept and Konan. If you don’t know, Krept and Konan are, to quote ES magazine, ‘Lords of Hiphop’. If you know a bit more, you’ll be aware that they are a duo of South London-based Grime MCs who came up through a largely underground following and are now making chart hits straddling both sides of the Atlantic.
ES magazine is a free publication distributed to commuters across London. There’s nothing niche about it. For this particular publication to be featuring Krept and Konan was an exciting prospect for me. I’m no connoisseur, but I follow Grime and am fascinated by its relationship with the mainstream. Grime is, among many things, the soundtrack of vibrant disaffection; kind of violent, energetic, playful and agitated all at once. Arguably, it’s an urban-born protest genre, reaching into a long heritage of Black British music. (Read this for more thoughts on the genre.) To feature in a magazine designed to distract Jo and Joanna Average on their way home from the office was, for me, intriguing.
Flick to the article in question (you can read it here) and it was clear that Krept and Konan had ‘arrived’. The article was a huge showcase of their new-found success, as marked by the glossy pictures of them in designer clothes, standing next to Rolls Royces, posing with Rolexes and lounging in private jets. Beside a subheading that ran:
Growing up surrounded by gang crime, rappers Krept and Konan found escape in South London’s urban music scene. Now everyone from Kanye to Ed Sheeran is a fan and they’re poised to break America. They tell Richard Godwin about doing time, being chauffeured by Drake and why they just want to make their mums proud
And… I didn’t like it. Because… I expected it. Let me explain.
Rags to Riches
The article is essentially a Rags to Riches story. More specifically, the exact same Rags to Riches story we have been presented with time and time again in the world of Hiphop. Socially deprived, economically impoverished criminal element picks up mic and makes millions through rap. The end.
Superficially, this, like all Rags to Riches, is a tale to be celebrated. But we have to consider the context. The Hiphop Rags to Riches is a mainstream endorsement couched in the politics of disempowerment. Hiphop is beleaguered by the Rags to Riches narrative. Think about it. A successful Hiphop artist is almost expected to come from some kind of social deprivation, as though their salvation (and acceptance by the mainstream) is tied to their ability to overcome socio-economic poverty. This is seriously reductive.
If the mainstream only accepts the success of the ‘other’ when that success is linked to a Rags to Riches narrative, then the Rags become overly important, and the Riches become overly valued. It is no accident that the ES article purports to understand Krept and Konan, but the reality is far more complex. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even a Hiphop act, but the article headline calls them ‘Lords of Hiphop’. The mainstream brain has kicked into gear to understand, package and pigeon-hole them as an understandable ‘other’.
On Thursday 10th December 2015 I had the privilege to hear Breakin’ Convention leader Jonzi (@jonzid) speak about his life in Hiphop at a HiphopEd seminar. He wove a rich, varied tapestry of art and culture, high and low, that went so much further than the Rags to Riches narrative. Jonzi stated very clearly that the commercialisation of Hiphop is not at the core of a culture that essentially requires no money to explore. So money cannot logically be an end goal. But, of course, Rags to Riches insists that a successful Hiphop artist is one that can stand next to a Rolls Royce in a gold watch.
Narratives are nothing new. And nothing new is known through them. In his exhaustive and excellent study of narratives ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Christopher Booker explores the notion that there are a finite number of narratives that we (as a species) continue to find and recreate to make sense of our selves and our stories. This is not offensive in itself, but paired with social inequalities and power paradigms? Something very dangerous can occur.
Things Fall Apart
Shortly after I presented some of these ideas at HiphopEd, Darren Chetty (HiphopEd and academic @rapclassroom) leaned in to offer that these politics of narrative are exactly the focus of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. If you haven’t read it, the novel details the life and times of a tragic protagonist, Okonkwo of the Nigerian Igbo tribe. And after chapter upon chapter exploring the intersection of generations and cultural skirmishes alongside the moral fluctuations of a seriously enigmatic tragic hero, it ends with a musing from the British Commissioner:
One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
As I say, there’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking. The Commissioner, in his representation of a colonial mindset, only understands what the thinks he knows of the Igbo. And of course he completely underestimates the richness and humanity of their entire culture. His casual reduction of an entire culture and one man’s (unknown) story to something worthy of ‘a paragraph’ is at once depressing and terrifying.
Beyond Rags and Riches
The presentation of Krept and Konan as a simple example of Rags to Riches is similarly problematic. It ignores so much that it doesn’t know, and worse still, fails to ask the kind of questions that might offer a new perspective to the mainstream brain. For example, one of the defining characteristics of Krept and Konan as artists is a propensity for punning and wordplay, almost of the Christmas cracker variety. Their lyrics are riddled with puns and double entendres, some quite clever, some worthy only of a groan. It was this that singled them out in the Grime scene in the first place.
I find this to be a defining feature of not only their work, but many Grime artists in general, something decidedly British that has roots in variety theatre and Stand-up as much as in MC heritage. But the mainstream lens isn’t wide enough for this conversation. Anything beyond the established narrative is a distraction and therefore irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Krept and Konan might share some kind of postmodern lineage with punchline peddlars of old, because they are, quote ‘rappers [who] found escape in South London’s urban music scene.’ End of.
Things Falling Apart in Education?
Admittedly, there must be a responsibility for those ‘in the know’ to offer these new perspectives. But the marginalised voice is rarely given an opportunity to be heard, listened to and acknowledged. This conflict comes into sharp relief with regard to formal education.
During my presentation, I played an impromptu game of ‘Cohort Bingo’ with the audience. Call out as many cohorts as you can, as discussed by educators in educational institutions. They came thick and fast. EAL. Black Boys. G&T. Looked After. SEN. Radicalised. At Risk. NEET. White Working Class. Etc. Schools, by identifying these cohorts, are at risk of doing to children (and by extension whole sections of society) what the Commissioner does to Okwonko in the final paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’. As soon as we decide what a someone’s narrative is, we deny them the right to shape their own story. And worse still, we ignore their story as it might have existed so far. I’m finding that Education is treated as one big Rags to Riches arc, with students too often treated as broken Cinderellas in need of the Prince Charming of assessment to get them to the university ball. As a result, we focus too intently on the Rags element. Can they read? Are they poor? Are they naughty? Are they clever? Do people like them get the Riches we want them to get? All of this stops us from asking more profound questions about their journey.
This cohort-heavy approach to education comes from a fascination with the other, and fascination and fear are close bed-fellows. The Commissioner’s motivation is to pacify ‘primitive tribes’ largely because colonists are always afraid of the unknown. The dark threat needs to be tamed, right? And the first step towards that taming is understanding. But this, I feel, is the most dangerous step, when ‘understanding’ is a construct built upon ideological foundations.
For these reasons, educationalists have a serious responsibility to challenge mainstream discourses in exactly the same way that Chinua Achebe challenged race/colonial discourses in his novel (and how I should probably challenge ES magazine by writing an essay on the British wit of Grime). Until then, we will be at the mercy of accepted narratives that shackle far more than they liberate. Definitely something to think about.