Jeremy Corbyn cradles a massive speaker in both arms, a look of pure steez on his face, the image emblazoned with the caption: “#grime4corbyn”. This illustration, which greets NME as we enter STYX, a restaurant, bar and venue on an industrial estate in Tottenham, north London, is not a typical piece of politicised graffiti. Then again, the following that Corbyn has here is anything but typical in mainstream politics.
It’s Saturday afternoon, less than a week before the general election that could change the face of the country, and we’re here to celebrate the unlikely relationship between grime and the current NME cover star, a 68-year-old man who’s spent 34 years as an MP in the safe Labour seat of Islington North. The late afternoon sun blazes on the open-air restaurant, which is packed with attendees who look to be in the 18-to-24 bracket, a demographic whose turnout at general elections has stalled at around 40% since 2005.
It’s more pints and Caribbean street food than the cups of tea and curled-up sandwiches you might associate with a Labour ward meeting. Held between 5pm and around 2am, today’s event will consist of a panel discussion between speakers who reflect #grime4corbyn’s values and performances from emerging grime artists such as Renz, Brotherhood UK and Maxsta. Anyone was welcome to claim the free tickets, providing they had registered to vote. One kid in the audience doesn’t even seem old enough to vote; he looks around 10.
There are two other #grime4corbyn events running concurrently tonight, a show at Visions, a club in Dalston, north-east London, which has become something of a grime mecca in recent years; and a set from fast-rising Midlands rapper Eyez at The Arch, a venue on the Brighton seafront. The concurrent events create a sense of a movement, a feeling of change that won’t necessarily dissipate if Theresa May is re-elected on Thursday.
A woman named Sofia (she chooses not to share her surname because she doesn’t want to be Googled) explains that #grime4corbyn’s main aim is to encourage political engagement in the youth, capitalising on the buzz created by rapper JME’s recent interview with Corbyn.
“We were really inspired by top-tier grime artists coming out in support of Corbyn on social media,” she says. “We saw that phenomenon and saw there’s genuinely a lot of people who love grime music and really support Jeremy Corbyn and his policies. It turned into a hashtag, it turned into a website, it turned into an event.”
Sofia hopes that this website, hashtag and series of events will become “a sustained campaign and a movement that empowers young people – particularly people from the poorest parts of the country –” who feel distant from robotic politicians and alien political speech.
What happens to the movement if we wake up on Friday, though, and find that the Conservatives have won?
“For me this is the beginning, regardless of what happens,” she says. “This is the beginning of a movement that has already begun to unpack the potential of cultural spaces and music as a form of political resistance.”
Sofia explains that #grime4corbyn was organised by “a loose collective” of around 10 volunteers. Today’s speakers, notable supporters of grime and Corbyn, line up on a small wooden bridge that crosses the man-made pond in the centre of STYX.
We meet 21-year-old Temi Mwale, who founded The 4Front Project, a social enterprise that seeks to prevent street violence; 22-year-old Tayler Prince Fraser, who created and runs an art and fashion website called The Basement; Kidulthood star Femi Oyeniran; Jess Straker, the woman behind Juice VCR, a website that broadcasts independent music videos on a constant loop; and Slix, a founding member of seminal first-wave grime collective Ruff Sqwad.
The Labour manifesto has afforded them a sense of optimism, with Corbyn vowing to scrap university tuition fees; protect the NHS with cash raised through increases in corporation tax; and bring back the £30 per week Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to make higher education more accessible to students from families on low incomes. August will mark the five-year anniversary of the London riots, a youth-led revolt that began here in Tottenham.
“I’m not a Labour supporter, “ Tayler tells the audience. “I’m a Jeremy Corbyn supporter.”
“It is about him as a person,” Jess agrees. “I know from my own experience and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people in the Afro-Caribbean community: I was brought up to vote Labour because [I was told that] they will look after me and my family and my kind. But then there’s people like Tony Blair. At least [with Corbyn] you know the person at the top has good intentions.”
— #Grime4Corbyn (@Grime4Corbyn) June 3, 2017
Once the discussion wraps up, the kid I spotted earlier is ushered to the stage by Slix. He’s introduced as Tofi, a 12-year-old poet from Woolwich, south-east London, and recites a poem he has written. “No-one can sell you,” he says, “you’re priceless… Why have limits when you can do anything?” The poem meets with raucous applause. Labour was a laughing stock just weeks ago, but then 103,439 young people registered to vote in the 72 hours after the announcement of the election and Theresa May’s lead halved in the wake of her loathed dementia tax. As Tofi receives a standing ovation, it’s tempting to believe anything can happen.
Femi, who compères the event, invites the audience to head to the venue at the back of the restaurant, where performances will stretch into the night. As the crowd begins to move – sleepily – towards the stage, I approach some members to find out what brought them to #grimeforcorbyn.
23-year-old Koreen Brown describes herself as “Corbyn first, grime second” and is grateful “that they’re doing this because they’re engaging young people that may not engage with politics; they’re getting the young onboard in a fun way where they can learn to take control of their futures.”
Jake Roberts, a 26-year-old who wears a badge that bears the caption, “If the Tories had a soul, they’d sell it,” echoes the point that Jess Straker made earlier. “I’ve been a long-term supporter of Corbyn,” he says. “I’ve always voted Labour but up until recently it was just an ingrained thing that you’d do. I grew up on a council estate in Croydon and it was standard fare that you’d be Labour. For the first time in a long time, there’s such a cross-section of society coming out for someone. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The performances have the hazy, easy-going air of a mid-afternoon festival set, with the likes of east London MC Lady Shocker’s rough-and-ready bars proving that grime’s heart remains DIY, despite its recent gentrification. There’s little self-seriousness, the atmosphere free-wheeling and supportive. When Renz, Major and Peace lead a chant to “bun” – sack off – Theresa May, it’s funny, a joke. There’s no venom in the exchange.
“When I say, ‘Bun!’, you say, ‘Theresa!’ Bun!”
— #Grime4Corbyn (@Grime4Corbyn) June 3, 2017
Laughter swells the venue. This is political activism, yes, but it’s also a celebration of youth and vitality and life. Later tonight, six miles away, south of the river at London Bridge, there will be another terrorist atrocity. Seven people will die when a van strikes pedestrians and three men stab victims at random in Borough Market. Here, though, in north London, for now, there is hope and joy.