Over its short lifespan, Grime music has accumulated a wide range of labels for itself. It has been called violent, misogynistic, being void of political engagement and so on. Some of these are undeniable condemnations but others, specifically those who hold the perception that Grime music sits outside of political discourse, have clearly misunderstood it and so hold a desperately inaccurate point of view. One of the exceptional things about Grime is that it goes against traditional British societal norms; the normal way to dress, to speak, to behave, to protest, to express the human experience. Where popular genres are having public conversations on domestic or world topics using languages and other modes of communication that are pre-existing and readily understood, Grime is having a private conversation with its members using esoteric language and sometimes unconventional forms of communication.
This usually means that those who are not from the endz often fail to understand the music in its entirety because they either cannot grasp every nuance of a Grime song or because their own preconceptions of the culture or of the artist affects their interpretations of the lyrics. An example of this can be found in an Evening Standard music review: Homecoming for King of Grime, where John Aizlewood expresses his disappointment at Skepta’s concert at Alexandra Palace (November 2016) stating that ‘frustratingly, not everything went to plan: songs we re-started…the audience sloped home unsatisfied’.
What Aizlewood calls “re-started” are in fact deliberate “wheel ups” (or pull ups or reloads or forwards or jack ups) and is one of the best accolades a Grime Mc can receive during a live set; the fact that wheel ups are usually initiated by the crowd shows that the crowd could not have been ‘unsatisfied’ by the performance. Aizlewood’s ignorance reveals that he is a person outside of this private conversation in Grime culture and thus unequipped to access its full experience. Grime is having many conversations but it is having them in its own way. So when it comes to the topic of mental health in the UK, many do not see how Grime and mental health belong in the same conversation and that may be because they are simply unable to access the music’s private conversation on the topic.
There are some who have already documented Grime music’s adverse contribution to mental health issues, highlighting how elements of it perpetuate a poisonous form of masculinity and deeply misogynistic and homophobic stereotypes. However, as necessary as this is, I think it is also necessary to map out Grime’s positive contribution in mental health by looking at what is arguably (but not really arguable, who are we kidding here) the most quintessential Grime album, Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner.
Sittin’ Here, the opening track of the album begins with Dizzee’s sombre and honest self-reflection whilst he observes the day-to-day life on an East London estate. The 17-year-old confesses:
I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I feel to cry
I’m sitting here depressed and I don’t know why
I try to pull myself together, tell myself fix up
And I keep myself from bawling but my eyes they erupt (Sittin’ Here, Boy In Da Corner).
Is it possible that what Dizzee highlights here are the effects that community trauma has on its individuals? According to Howard Pinderhughes, in the Prevention Institute’s report Addressing and Preventing Trauma at the Community Level, young people who grow up experiencing traumatising events and conditions are significantly affected, is usually manifested in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related issues. For Pinderhughes, in the case of community trauma the “Post” in PTSD should in fact stand for “persistent” or “pervasive” as the trauma is ongoing and not in the past (unlike a soldier who returns from the war). He explains:
“What young people are experiencing in urban neighbourhoods […] can be understood as a persistent or chronic traumatic stress. Trauma is a consistent and constant thing that young people in some communities have to deal with on a daily basis, and they have to construct and shape their lives in ways to deal with the potential for violence, either to avoid it or to cope with it when it occurs.”
To understand the “consistent and constant thing” that Dizzee and others in this estate, “deal with”, we must refer back to Sittin’ Here:
Cause it’s the same old story, shutters, runners, cats and money stacks
And it’s the same old story, ninja bikes, gun fights and scary nights
And it’s the same old story, window tints and gloves for finger prints. (Sittin’ Here, Boy In Da Corner).
With all this considered, it becomes clear that the traumatic conditions of the inner-city council estate have had adverse effects on this teenager who in turn chooses to express it through his music. However, Boy In Da Corner not only maps collective community trauma, it also explores the dark side of the fame and celebrity thrusted upon a young Dizzee. In Do It!, Dizzee speaks of experiencing psychosis, suicidal thoughts and loneliness:
Sometimes I wake up wishing I could sleep for ever
I spend my whole life tryna’ pull myself together
Tryna’ reassure myself that I ain’t going mad
You think that any kid in my position would be glad
Its quite the opposite more worries more fears
Sometimes I wake up wishing I could sleep for days
Sometimes I wake up wishing I could sleep for good
And if I had the guts to end it all believe I would
It’s getting boring always being miserable and sad. (Do it!, Boy In Da Corner).
Many often forget that Dizzee was around seventeen years old at the time the album was being made and was therefore a child celebrity and, like many child celebrities, discovers that dealing with fame is extremely precarious. The surge in attention, money and pressure often leads to a wide range of mental health issues and Do It! talks of his emotional detachment from the world around him and the depth of solitude that results in him becoming suicidal. The song speaks of a grey area that Dizzee finds in himself in which he is not quite part of the world he grew up in anymore despite still feeling an obligation to be the spokesperson for it. The song is not defeatist, rather it feels like self-therapy for him but that is not the most notable functionality of the song. In Do it! Dizzee is having a private conversation with the members of the culture:
No one to turn to and no one to talk to
Life’s like a door way everybody walk through
Everybody’s talking but nobody’s listening (Do it!, Boy In Da Corner).
In Boy In Da Corner, Dizzee makes a bold statement about mental health in a community that is often known to shun talk of it. It is well known that there is a stigma attached to mental health in these communities which can be traced back to the Afro-Caribbean and African cultures that serve as the foundations of many strands of black Britishness (because we know that there isn’t just one version of black British culture, right?).
The recent research report by Ethnos states that “one third (32%) of [BAME] people say they were treated less favourably by their own communities because of their mental illness due to various social and cultural reasons.” So, it is no surprise that few in these communities want to bring up talk of a mental illness for fear of being ostracised. Now would it be a fair statement to say that Grime music has inherited this custom of suppressing the mental health conversation? In a world where boys are known to hide their most vulnerable selves, Dizzee makes a brave move, one that most overlook and often forget to credit him for, a move that is reflective of Grime’s DNA as the anti-norm, going against what is expected of you.
He reveals his most intimate self to his peers and stresses to them the need to listen to, and support, one another in order to combat the effects of community and personal trauma. The album serves as a medium connecting every listener who shares the same cultural experience as Dizzee, who can relate to the “ninja bikes, gun fights and scary nights” and the effect it has on their mental health. Every other listener who is not from that cultural experience remains a fringe observer. I do not mean to say that fringe observers do not experience mental health issues or cannot relate to elements of Dizzee’s story, but it is the unique references, the nuanced images, the inner-city London slang that tells us that Dizzee is deliberately talking to a specific community about a subject they seldom talk about. In the process Dizzee is cultivating a sense of support, mutual empathy and sympathy.
I do not find it far fetched to say that the functionality of Boy In Da Corner as a medium where mental health is either discussed and/or treated can be extended to the whole genre of Grime music. The Oxford Journal’s Health Education Research report expounds on the link between low self-esteem and mental health issues. From this one can gather that young people in inner-city estates are one of the communities most likely to suffer from low self-esteem due to their constant exposure to poverty and many forms of systematic oppression. Grime music serves as a framework where the existence and collective experience of young people in the inner city (their forms of speech, fashion, customs and ideas) are championed, leading to a sense of self-worth, a growth in confidence and a new stream of income (for those participating). Grime is very much in the conversation surrounding mental health but perhaps not all of us are listening properly.