Review of Simon Wheatley's Don't Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime Northumbria Press, 2010
When faced with misery and frustrated potential on the scale captured by these photographs, the news media and government usually fall back on statistics. The triumph of former Magnum photographer Simon Wheatley's book is that it breaks free of the numbers' dehumanising, deadening effect by focussing on the experience of individuals. Wheatley's images and text, a product of twelve years spent photographing London's so-called 'urban' music subculture and interviewing its proponents, illuminates a world known hitherto only through sensationalist newspaper reporting and, of course, through the music itself.
A major focus of Wheatley's collection is the tragic growth of postcode warfare, which, it suggests, is partly an expression of despair and is connected to the ascent of grime, a claustrophobic, more aggressive style of English rap. Fundamentally, the book is about the effect of poverty on children and young people. One of Wheatley's eeriest photos shows a tiny toy horse marooned on a council estate walkway.
Ever since its beginnings in the early eighties, with MCs such as the late lamented Smiley Culture and Lewisham's Saxon International reggae soundsystem, 'urban' music in England has been extremely distinctive due to its fusion of West Indian and English (often Cockney) influences. Lyrics focus on word play and humour, slice of life sociopolitical commentary with an emphasis on anti-racism, and homespun philosophy. They are traditionally less concerned with American-style self-conscious machismo. The complex and often skittish rhythms, which depart from the wearisome thudding of much commercial American rap and reached their apotheosis in Bristolian trip-hop, draw on Caribbean musical ancestry, particularly the dancehall and reggae craze of the eighties. The vocals are also more diverse, from Tricky's profound rasp to Dizzee Rascal's erstwhile engaging squeakiness and sweet-voiced female MCs such as Speech Debelle. Some of the genre's idiosyncracies are captured on Akala's track The Edge (from the 2006 album It's Not a Rumour) which deals variously with the universal theme of youthful frustration with exploitative employers, and pride in being an English rapper. Elsewhere on the album, he bigs himself up in traditional hip-hop style, but with reference to William Shakespeare.
It is certainly possible to say that grime, in particular, has finally arrived. However, from the point of view of 'D' Rowe, an older Saxon MC who runs a pirate radio station, this is not a positive development. As the rewards of 'urban' music grow, desperately ambitious youth increasingly perceive it as their only route of escape, producing greater competiton and conflict. Rowe also feels that the recent popularity of American gangsta rap has worsened the situation; he fought against the broadcasting of this music in the belief that it would promote guns and misogyny. Indeed, the new generation is a worry not just to Rowe but also to younger people like Complex, who notes that "I left school in 1999 and now it's 2008 and a lot has changed." Rowe despairs of youthful impatience, while Complex believes that the young are blinded by money. Ayiko, one of Wheatley's female interviewees, cites a disconnection from the older generation and acceptance of harmful stereotypes as part of the explanation. The book itself, however, hints at another reason for the negativity of grime, with its depictions of the grim material circumstances in which the music is written and recorded. Wheatley's haunting and saddening mother-and-child study of Ayiko and her daughter Jaffiah, looking out a window at another high rise, makes this point eloquently.
The images themselves are extraordinary: tough, mournful, tender and alarming by turns. Fundamental instincts struggle for survival whatever the circumstances, as Wheatley's studies of love and motherhood show. They are up against fearsome odds, however. These photographs are interwoven with images of fights, drug use and depression, and harrowing pictures of Kodjo Yenga's funeral. The book is full of fine portraits, but most of them communicate a total and un-youthful lack of hope or excitement. Wheatley's subjects confront the camera with grim-faced ennui, suspicion or melancholy.
One point that Wheatley's interviewees are anxious to make is that they find the 'urban music' term offensive. It was, of course, imported from the USA, but it is not hard to understand their argument that it has a segregating effect in the English context. The recent Midsomer Murders controversy suggests how: the negative connotations of the word 'urban,' and the association of belonging with the rural in English culture, make the label a means of Othering both the music and the people who produce it.
Wheatley's brilliant work of photojournalism is much needed as a sociological study. By deploying an interview technique it gives a voice to the voiceless, and their eloquence and wryly honest self-appraisal convey how much more they could achieve, given the right circumstances. Dizzee Rascal emphasises the importance of sustained self-belief in 2008's Dream, which samples Rodger and Hammerstein's Happy Talk and is accompanied by a video which wittily contrasts two Englands (Dizzee's street cred and a Blytonesque piano teacher, whose marionettes break-dance behind Dizzee). However, hope under duress is extremely difficult to maintain over time, and Wheatley's study paints a picture of a community with little outlet for its energies and talents but grime music; even at the best of times, this is not enough of an avenue for ambition. It also demonstrates that social exclusion cannot be reduced to a single factor but emerges from a web of mutually exacerbating problems. The photographs make it clear that one of these is governmental neglect of housing, and suggest that decaying council estates incubate the frustration expressed in grime music. One thing that all MCs, whether successful or not, share in common is early experiences of such an environment.--Isabel Taylor