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The Mercury Prize 2016: The Good, The Bad and The Skepta

I wouldn’t say this is a revolution for grime. I think it’s a really good time for grime, but I think that this is a revolution of freedom,’ argued Skepta, shortly after winning the 2016 Mercury Prize for his universally-lauded record, Konnichiwa. While the Mercury set-up has its critics, nobody can question its significance as a bookmark in the musical calendar. Whether or not the commemorative gesture it makes is an empty one, it’s a commemorative gesture that’s still considered important to a lot of people – artists especially. Skepta’s aforementioned declaration, taken from a longer interview he gave to the BBC following his crowning, does a marvellous job of summing up this year’s competition from both sides of the debate. Are you sitting comfortably? Packed a pair of spare clothes? Fluids to hand? Brill. Let’s break it down.

– ‘A revolution for grime’
The knee-jerk reaction to Konnichiwa’s win is, of course, to claim that this is the crowning moment of the Revolution de Grime. Little old Skepta went up against the big boys (your Bowies, your Radioheads) and came away victorious, crowning an incredible year for the genre. Skepta won it, but Kano was also nominated – and look at the popularity of people like Stormzy, too. Though we already knew it, the Mercury Shortlist confirmed it: Grime was back, and in a big way. Right?

Well, no – not quite. See, the thing is, grime never really went away. Both Skepta and Kano have been churning out their music for over a decade now, but it only seems to have been within the last couple of years that such sounds have been embraced by the mainstream. It’s not a ‘revolution for grime’, because such a statement implies that something within the movement has undertaken a radical change. It hasn’t. That’s the beauty of the music, really; it’s of a devastating simplicity. An angry, street-level response to established, hegemonic forces, be them the government, the police, a rival group, pop music – whatever. Though minimal in its sonic makeup, grime is bottomless in its potential for unadulterated storytelling. If there’s been a revolution, it’s a wider social one. Suddenly, in 2016, the message that Skepta and co are relaying has been adopted by a number of different demographics. Whether it’s the ‘fuck you’ rhetoric aimed at those in power that has resonated most in Austerity Britain, or the anti-fashion streetwear favoured by artists that appeals to a post-millennial Instagram generation, who knows. Either way, there’s been no such change in grime. That’s what makes it beautiful.

‘A really good time for grime’
This one goes without saying, and was touched upon in the previous paragraphs, but yes: grime currently finds itself in a healthy state, because of the much larger audience it now commands. Skepta and Kano’s nominations felt like a few years too late if the Mercury Prize is doing what it so-often claims, but from a quantifiable perspective, we can use Konnichiwa and Made In The Manor’s inclusion on the shortlist as evidential proof of the previously-cited ‘good time.’ Both records are deserving of their places – some would even argue that the latter was a finer album. Either way, from the Mercury Prize, we can infer that the change-in-tide (as far as the reception towards grime is concerned) is one that includes the critical sphere, too. Yes, these kinds of artists should have been making up shortlists for the last ten years, but they’re here now – and even the most hardened cynic would find it difficult to argue against that being a good thing. The Mercury’s reputability is a much larger debate – and one for another time – but it’s still an important platform in terms of expanding music’s reach. I repeat: this is a good thing.

– ‘A revolution for freedom’
And last, but most certainly not least: ‘freedom.’ While it’d be easy to quickly dismiss such sentiment as hyperbolic, I think this is where Skepta is most on the money. Rewind to last year, and we were discussing the #BritsSoWhite argument, and it’s aftermath. This year, the Mercury shortlist featured some of the finest black, British artists who are (and have been, for a long time) making music today. Grime is a pillar of black culture in Britain, and, like we’ve already discussed, has been for a long, long time now. If it can find its audience growing during an environment where racial tensions are as prevalent as they’ve ever been, than this does say something about freedom, I think. The same applies to the music of Laura Mvula and Michael Kiwanuka, two artists who tackle race head-on in their respective musical works. Grime has always been a reactionary art form, an expression framed as retaliation at social, political and racial hardships. If the whole of the country is catching on to that, then I reckon that Skepta’s absolutely right. This is about freedom.

Words by Niall Flynn

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