The riots, the rappers and the Anglo-Jamaican tragedy

Did hip-hop culture play a part in last week's riots? And do you have to come from the inner city to discuss its problems?
August 16, 2011

Liberal Britain has declared, with relief, that the riots—whatever the hell they were about—were not about race. It is true that after starting black in Tottenham they became whiter as they moved around and then out of London. But the "original sin" of post-war English immigration—the rejection of the West Indians who arrived here, keen to fit in, in the 1950s and 1960s—still lingers like a bad dream over these events. Let me explain, but first a brief recap.

Some Prospect readers thought that in my first blog on the riots I overplayed the "post-political" style of the rioters and underplayed how much they were the bastard offspring of a crass, consumerist, unequal society. And it is true that a large scale riot of underclass youth is a political event even if they have no political spokesmen or demands, and their motives range far and wide (sheer excitement being pretty high up the list). Having had a few more days to watch and listen and read I want to develop some of my instant responses—especially in relation to the issues of race and "the culture of the ghetto" that have been debated since then.

The initial spread of the riots was mainly a result of the police holding back and briefly ceding control of the north London streets. But the fact that so many young people of all races were happy to pour through the breach and take advantage of the power vacuum is, in part, down to the anti-social culture of the inner city street. The "hoodie" culture of disaffection has told young people that their inchoate anger at the "power," the system, the government, the rich (or their nearest surrogate the shopkeepers), the police—whatever!—is righteous.

Where does this culture come from? Clearly, there is a long tradition of "screw the system" anti-police, anti-authority, and anti-education attitudes at the rough end of the white working class, supplemented in recent decades by a "lumpen intelligentsia" of extreme leftists and anarchists. But the dominant imagery and symbolism of today’s inner city culture has its roots in the black American ghetto, subsequently crossing the Atlantic on the back of hip hop and rap culture in the late 1980s.

Hip hop now occupies an enormous part of the music scene worldwide, and much of it is an inoffensive branch of pop music. At its more sophisticated end many people I respect tell me that hip hop has great cultural value—as great, if not greater, than jazz—and I am happy to believe them. But some of these people are no longer seeing the wood for the trees. There is also an angry, destructive and self-limiting background thud that quite a lot of hip hop transmits. It has become such a commonplace that many middle-class people no longer see or hear it, but I think the inner city kids do hear it.

At the soft end the embrace of the cool gangster lifestyle is just about cars, girls and bling. But there is also a glamorisation of violence and the outlaw/victim even among hugely successful mainstream rap stars like 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin) and Dizzee Rascal ("Sirens"). That is hardly new and has been a strand of youth culture and popular culture forever. But this is different; on the streets of the inner city it is not fantasy or escapism, it is propaganda. The videos and lyrics of the rap/grime music world speak directly to the lives of young black kids, with a grainy hyper-realism. And too many basically say: the system is a stitch-up, white society will never give you a break, and gang life and violent transgression is the only sensible, indeed honourable, path.

There is a harder end, too. Watch the videos of rappers like Lethal Bizzle and Giggs: they are impressively produced justifications of violence and criminality often filmed around the estates of Peckham or Hackney. There is a neat little film about a successful bank robbery ("Pow") and another that explains why everyone in the inner city needs to be armed with a knife or gun (Giggs has served time for illegal possession of a gun), while Lethal Bizzle’s "Babylon’s Burning the Ghetto" is basically an incitement to riot. The opening sequences show an angry kid smashing the symbols of respectability and aspiration of his youth, a picture of Jesus and a framed picture of two happy looking black children in school uniform, before heading out to join the insurrection.

It is not true to say that this is non-political. There is a politics, but it is vicious and self-pitying. In an admiring piece by Dan Hancox for the Guardian, Lethal Bizzle and others are reported both regretting and justifying the rioting; slagging off the politicians while completely absolving themselves of all responsibility. Lethal Bizzle wrote an article in the Guardian back in 2006 attacking David Cameron for presuming to make a connection between rap music and knife crime. (Lethal Bizzle’s song "You’ll Get Wrapped" is an argument for arming yourself with a lethal weapon.) He makes no attempt to refute the idea that there might be some sort of connection between the ideas he broadcasts and what happens on the street. Instead he tells us that he has generously mentored a dozen black kids and thereby probably saved them from a life of crime.

Of course the connection between media/music and behaviour is a complex one but I suspect that Lethal Bizzle and Hancox believe there is a connection between reading the Daily Mail or the Sun and having prejudices against young black kids—they don't seem to apply these normal rules of transmission to violence-worshipping hip hop/grime.

Do you have to come from the inner city to discuss its problems?

Lethal Bizzle, Giggs and other inner city opinion formers have contributed to the crisis of inner city youth and then decreed that no one else can talk about it apart from them, "because you have to experience it."

There is the issue—always raised in debates like this—of whether a privileged white man like me who knows no inner city black kids can have anything useful to say on this subject. I may, of course, be talking nonsense but surely the bigger point is an even greater nonsense: only those who experience something can understand and comment on it. The lived experience of something is one part of the story, but only a part. I am a journalist and have spent my life writing about people whose lives I cannot experience from the inside. You listen, observe, talk, read and then try to report, and sometimes pass judgement, on what you have found. Twenty-five years ago I covered the "rioting" coal miners dispute for nearly a whole year for the Financial Times without ever really understanding what it was like being a coal miner. I have debated with Owen Jones about "chavs" without anyone suggesting that I was disqualified from comment because I had not spent my life on a rough council estate.

Is race different? Why should it be? Because the differences run deeper? But they don’t, just look at how African Caribbean (largely Jamaican) culture has influenced the youth culture of big English cities, particularly London.

So why, then, do I focus on the black core of this culture of disaffection? For two inter-related reasons. First, because the rappers are working on more combustible material in the black, or rather African Caribbean, culture of the inner city. (This is not about blackness as such because there are many black Africans, especially from west Africa, making a success of life in Britain.) Whether it is school exclusion, crime (gun crime in particular) or single parenthood, African Caribbeans are in a worse state than other groups and therefore more susceptible to the message of the gangster-rappers. Second, because unlike whites and even most Asians, they can attribute some of that failure to the brutalisation that their community experienced when it first arrived in Britain and the after-effects of that rejection still resonate on the streets today.

The Anglo-African Caribbean tragedy

The Anglo-African Caribbean story has become a much happier one in recent decades but it is also a kind of tragedy. When the Windrush generation arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s, they were full of admiration for the mother country and wanted to embrace it. They met indifference and hostility, even the churches closed their doors to them. Their disappointment sometimes turned to bitterness and violence but the second and third generations did force Britain to change. Partly as a result of those political battles in the 1980s and 1990s overt racism in public life is now rare and police-black relations are agreed to be vastly improved.

But the change in British society came too late for many—the long tail of African Caribbean failure continues to call up the old tunes of discrimination and police brutality, and the rappers’ assumption that white society is a stitch up still finds a large, receptive audience. The war is over, the good guys won, more or less, and yet many of the gangster rappers don't want to lay down their weapons. Understandably enough, perhaps, as music is the one area of our culture where young black men are indisputably the king pins, and some of them are getting very rich out of it.

The victim mentality is sustained by British hip hop's constant conflation of the British and American experience (see Giggs's rather brilliant "Don't Go There"). Much of American hip hop from the late 1970s to the early 1990s was an understandable reaction to US racism. Socio-economic and racial conditions for British blacks have always been much better but this is not something that British gangster rappers have been keen to acknowledge. (One measure of how different things are in Britain is gun crime: despite worries about its rise, the whole of England and Wales has about 50 gun homicides a year for 60m people. Baltimore alone has about 200 gun homicides a year for half a million people.)

Surely there are enough real barriers for the inner city kids, especially the black ones, without erecting huge extra barriers in their minds. "Authentic black men don't do education and self-improvement"—this is the often self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that is blasted out by the worst of the rappers, high on their own cult status.

And the feeling of embattlement in African Caribbean culture extends beyond the inner city. Even black leaders who know how much has improved often wear their racial scars close to the surface. For a book I am writing about post-war immigration I recently spoke to two very prominent and successful black politicians. Recalling the closed doors and violence of the 1980s both spoke with quiet anger as if it was yesterday, one of them said: "We were combating out and out racism... we were constantly made to feel ashamed... it is never completely comfortable belonging to an ethnic minority... and it certainly wasn’t back then."

There is a significant and growing black middle class in Britain, but many in that group tend to keep their heads down and often feel ambivalent about success, as if it is somehow letting down "the community."

A writer of part-African Caribbean background described to me recently how few black parents turn up to parents evenings in the local schools because of the terrible experiences they themselves had at school. She thought it was a disaster that they didn’t turn up but seemed to understand their absence to the point of justifying it. Surely the point is that things have changed a lot in 30 years. White teachers no longer take delight in humiliating black pupils, indeed if anything they are now too frightened of the young men to teach them properly. The same writer talked eloquently about how, "so many sweet and clever and hard-working black boys turn at the age of 11 or 12 into these troubled and angry youths, because it seems that is the only identity available for them if they want to survive and be admired." And yet she hesitated to denounce these well-known pathologies for fear of joining the "other side."

There is also a critical mass problem. Once failure and criminality become endemic at the bottom end of a community it becomes very difficult to shake it off. One black leader I know wrote in a confidential report to government about gangs, at the height of the knife crime wave in 2008: "I would bet from my own experience that the majority of black people in London have a close relative who has a record for some kind of drugs or gang-style crime. This simply isn’t the case for the white majority."

A failure of two liberalisms

I said in my first blog that the riots were a failure of, or perhaps some sort of expression of, Britain’s two laissez-faire liberalisms—the right-wing economic one and the left-wing cultural one. The economic-social one has not provided the apprenticeships and vocational training for the urban working class, and preferred to open the door to nearly one million east Europeans before sorting out the training and employment prospects for the inner city hard core. And the left-wing cultural one has seen the withering of many old structures of meaning and restraint—the church, the two-parent family, the teacher, the bobby on the beat—and replaced it with personal autonomy, equal rights and hedonism. For many people that has been a liberation, for others it has been a disaster.

The first liberal failure is the one that the left focuses on—"society is still to blame." This is about economics but is also, at least for young blacks, about racism. How much racism is there in British society? Is it too complacent to see it as largely a thing of the past? Are the black kids who still complain about it seeing something that isn’t really there? How many of the obstacles are in their own heads and how many in the real world? How can you measure it?

Certainly several ethnic minorities perform better in education and employment outcomes than the white majority—Hindu Indians, Sikhs, Chinese and some black Africans. That suggests that even if there is some residual racism in British society it is not enough to block decent opportunities to those who can take them. And it is surely illogical to attribute the success of some minorities to their aspirational cultures while attributing the relative failure of other minorities such as African Caribbeans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, to British society's racism.

Yet as a mixed race acquaintance wrote to me in the course of writing this blog: "I can't stress to you strongly enough how much the black people I know—my entire extended family, my friends—do not feel that Britain is a pleasantly equitable place. They know very well Britain is not like America, but they think this country, if you are poor and black, is a difficult place to be."

There is a complex interaction of class and ethnicity here. Perhaps it is part of the African Caribbean tragedy that they didn’t have the cultural "protection" from British society that, say, Sikhs and Muslims did (often living quite separate lives, not marrying out, keeping ancestral languages). Many African Caribbeans became downwardly mobile (often through no fault of their own), integrating too well with the least successful and roughest stratum of English society.

So are African Caribbeans a special case? Many of them do seem to have an especially acute sense of beleaguerment born in the Anglo-Jamaican tragedy and now sustained by that street culture of disaffection. Certainly the stop-and-search issue angers young blacks, but how much of the stopping is justified by the higher levels of crime in the places they live in? This has become a cycle of black anger at police behaviour apparently justifying criminal behaviour, which then requires tougher police behaviour and leads to more young black anger and criminality.

Some of the stop and search is happening because of Operation Trident, the police operation against gun crime in the black community, which was partly called into being by the black community itself. Are the police just doing it clumsily, thereby calling up the carefully preserved memories of past black humiliations? Perhaps if they were all issued with copies of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island (about the first West Indian immigrants of the late 1940s) they might understand something of the twitchiness of the black street. Perhaps there should be many more black policemen, but that has been tried without much success.

And what of the economics and employment prospects? Self-evidently the inner city kids have fewer opportunities and a tougher start than, say, my children. But they have vastly greater opportunities than their parents and grandparents. Lindsay Johns, a youth worker in Peckham (who has written on this subject for the next issue of Prospect), says, "I’m always telling my kids that there has never been a better time to be young, black and bright." Billions of pounds was spent by Labour on education and public infrastructure in the inner city, and indeed on making certain aspects of welfare more generous. A friend of mine who worked for Haringey council said that the amount of money that has gone into the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham (the home of Mark Duggan, whose death triggered the original disturbances) is "really amazing, you could have knocked it down and rebuilt it many times over." The cuts have not yet made significant inroads into all of that.

Unlike Germany, we do not do vocational training well and have a long tailback of educational failure, not just in the inner city. But look at the east European workers in Britain—the jobs, even low skilled ones, are evidently there if you are well turned out, turn up on time and speak proper English, not street slang. Surely we have failed to manage the expectations of inner city kids—race equality, such a central concern of the past few decades, does not automatically mean social and economic equality. Listening to the kids ranting and raving in the media they seem to think that they are entitled to things without making any serious effort. As Tony Sewell, the black educationalist, has put it: "Respect is demanded not earned." Official anti-racism in schools and local government has sometimes reinforced this story.

The extreme sensitivity to any form of unfairness—what Camila Batmanghelidjh of the charity Kids Company calls "exquisite sensitivity to humiliation and powerlessness"—is maybe one of the unintended consequences of modern multiculturalism. It has reduced resilience and damaged the work ethic of the inner city child by telling them that the racial barriers have fallen and now they can achieve anything they want.

The increase in inequality in Britain since the 1980s and the sense of a "casino" economy where rewards apparently go to the gamblers rather than the grafters may have exacerbated the problem. But this is still a decent society with plenty of opportunity for those who want to take it. It is truly perverse behaviour to submit to a life of petty crime and unemployment because the Gini coefficient has risen a couple of points above France. (If you strip out the City of London, Britain is no more unequal than most European societies, and the taxes from the city did help pay for all the money lavished on Broadwater Farm.)

Should we expect more rioting?

The riots could be an extraordinary "one-off"—a product of summer holiday boredom and that moment of madness on the part of the police when they appeared to cede control to the hoodies armed with crowd-swarming technology. I think it is more likely that it will happen again at regular intervals, it is a new form of British politics. The kids felt their power and enjoyed it.

To stop that happening requires that the authorities get the right mix of carrots and sticks—everything from keeping open the youth clubs, to sorting out school exclusion, learning from America on tackling gang culture with mentors and teen courts, trying to do something about the extraordinary commercialisation of childhood in Britain and getting welfare reform right. But it also requires a change of heart on behalf of the kids themselves, or at least enough of them. A new ethic of responsibility will not grow overnight and liberalism is not very good at teaching tough love—public policy cannot stop girls getting pregnant or young men joining gangs as a surrogate family.

But politics can make a difference, especially if the right people lead the debate. And right now we should be listening to the people who have inside experience of the inner city and are in a position to challenge the rappers’ nihilistic message—especially to young black men—that the system is closed against you and violence is the only way to go. Acknowledging how much people in the inner city might also be the author of their own misfortunes is still a minority position, though now expressed by a few important figures such as Shaun Bailey, Tony Sewell and Lindsay Johns. They have a mighty uphill battle against the Lethal Bizzles and Giggses.

Perhaps what is needed to catch the national imagination is for one of Britain’s more mature and clear-eyed rap stars to write a new West Side Story set in Peckham or Tottenham—a story that would spare neither British society, the mainstream politicians, nor the "community" but whose central villain would be a gangster-rapper, one of those posturing pied pipers leading the innocents to their ruin.

Read Prospect contributor Shiv Malik's response to David Goodhart here