Black British rappers are teaching the country a lot about Boris’s Britain. On Tuesday night’s Brit Awards, the south London rapper Dave carried the mantle for a long tradition of Black rappers and grime artists leading fierce opposition against racism. Backed by just a piano, he delivered a searing version of his powerful track ‘Black’, taking on the Prime Minister with a new verse: “It is racist, whether or not it feels racist / The truth is our prime minister’s a real racist / They say – ‘you should be grateful, we’re the least racist’ / I say the least racist is still racist.” The audience whooped at the lyrics; this was a real cultural moment.
The Brit Awards have historically criticised for being sterile and unadventurous, but Dave disrupted this format by investigating what racism looks like in modern Britain before an audience of millions. ‘Psychodrama’, Dave’s brilliant 2019 debut album, which was awarded ‘Album of the Year’ at the Awards show, and it says a lot about his commitment to battling racism that he chose the occasion to premiere these new lines about Black struggle, pain, beauty and excellence.
In their fearless condemnation of racist Britain, artists such as Dave and Stormzy refuse to be groomed as exceptional darlings of the nation. They could become cosy symbols of the mainstream, but instead they affirm their alignment with Black communities. Their loud message is: fuck being ‘grateful’ to Britain. Fuck being meek and mild in the face of racism. These are artists asking tough questions that the government dodges. Who can forget Stormzy’s 2018 performance at the Brit Awards – another welcome anomaly at the event – when he criticised Theresa May’s handling of the rehousing of Grenfell Tower victims: “Yo, Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?”. Three years after the fire, we’re still asking.
There’s a long lineage of Black artists declaring war on the political establishment. In Thatcher years we saw the Brixton riots, which were driven by police brutality, rampant racism, criminalisation and failure to address high unemployment rates amongst Black youths. In response, the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recited damning political verse in Jamaican Patois over dub-reggae tracks, exposing England for exactly what it is: “Inglan is a bitch / Dere’s no escaping it.” As white commentators and Thatcher herself attempted to blame Black Brits for their own inequality, he recited: “Well mi dhu day wok an’ mi duh nite wok / Mi duh clean wok an’ mi duh dutty wok/ dem seh dat black man is very lazy/ But it y’u si mi wok y’u woulda sey mi crazy.”
Anti-racist resistance – specifically against Government – has always been driven through Black music. In 2003 Dizzee Rascal captured feelings of neglect and abuse felt by inner city black youth due to the introduction of ASBOs, an institutionally racist Home Office and police force and Home Secretary David Blunkett rejecting that charge of ‘institutional racism’. Or as Dizzee put it, in his inimitable style, on ‘Hold Ya Mouf’: “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair.”
What Dave’s rebuke of the Prime Minister at the Brit Awards teaches us about the state of race relations in 2020, though, is that what actually counts ‘racism’ is frequently (and intentionally) blurred and shifted. Denials of racism and the persistent myth of ‘reverse racism’ have reared their ugly heads with alarming regularity. Just this week, Number 10 hired and refused to condemn advisor Andrew Sabisky, who claimed that most Black American’s IQ levels are “close to the typical boundary for mild mental retardation”. Seriously, he said that.
As Dave documented different facets of British racism, he highlighted the ways in which they’re frequently denied. Mass incarceration? Not racist! Grenfell? A ‘tragedy’, rather than anti-black social murder. Windrush? An administrative error, and not a natural conclusion of the hostile environment. Meghan? We’re not racist; we just don’t like her. Dave’s statement was in many ways quite simple but also radical: he told that state that, yes, it is racist as hell.
“As Dave documented different facets of British racism, he highlighted the ways in which they’re frequently denied”
Boris’s Britain certainly spells trouble for Black Britons. Mass deportations, a regressive drug policy, unfair sentencing and an ‘Americanised’ police force armed with tasers and stun guns continue to threaten Black British life. We have seen how the system targets Black communities, and that’s why Dave’s performance was so powerful.
Naming racism for what it is – and refusing to be gaslighted into accepting and being grateful for a mythical post-racial state – is an act of resistance. At the 2020 Brit Awards, Dave stood on the shoulders of giants in Black political art, continuing the lineage of those who have brought the heat to every racist tosser on this rainy island.