Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime

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Read 06/07/2019-16/07/2019

Rating 4 stars

Read as part of the 20 Books of Summer readathon.

I read Hold Tight as someone who isn’t strictly a fan but who likes the Grime I’ve heard and wanted to know more about its artists and evolution. I’m aware that this review might not be of interest to most of the readers who regularly follow my meandering thoughts on what I’m reading. However, if you’re even vaguely interested in the sociology of working class culture and the music genres that emerge from it, then give this review and the book it’s about a chance. For anyone black, urban and millennial dropping by, please be aware that this review is going to be a bit like the bromance between Michael Buerke and Tinchy Stryder on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

In the preface to the second edition of Hold Tight, Jeffrey Boakye explains what his book is and isn’t.

… I never set out to be definitive. I wanted to spark dialogue … Hold Tight, was, is, remains one Grime fan’s idiosyncratic take on a genre of black music that has had an indelible impact on black British culture and, by extension, pop culture at large.

Hold Tight is, he tells us, a fanzine, the work of a nerd, and a critical outsider take on the genre. Since the original publication of the book in 2017, Grime has become A Thing. I’m aware of it and I’m a 48-year old white woman. To be fair, I was first aware of Grime in 2004 when out of curiosity I bought a Grime compilation featuring tracks by Mark One, Plasticman and Slaughter Mob. The odd bit of chart bothering by the likes of Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah aside, I then forgot about Grime until Skepta won the 2016 Mercury Prize with Konnichiwa and suddenly other middle aged white people who largely worked for The Guardian started paying attention. At which point, Boakye suggests, Grime seemed to die. Except it hasn’t. Like all expressions of urban culture, Grime has shifted.

Hold Tight has a subtitle: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime. It’s Boakye’s examination of black urban culture in 21st century Britain. Boakye works as an English teacher in East London. He wrote a brilliant essay for The Guardian earlier this year about how blackness is often reduced to cliché in the media and in general conversation. It was this essay that steered me to buy Hold Tight. It was Stormzy’s headline set at Glastonbury that reminded me that I hadn’t read it yet.

The book is a tracklist, the songs chosen for their significance to the development of Grime. Boakye writes an essay on each track and argues for its place in Grimelore. It covers the sampled, the ground-breaking and the influential, as well as the key artists within the genre. I found all but a half dozen of the tracks on Spotify, which I turned into a playlist to listen to while reading. And then, because I’m a completer-finisher, I made a YouTube playlist with all the individual tracks on it, bar the full Stormzy and Wiley albums. I saved those separately. This was a great way to reignite my delight in genres like Jungle, 2-step, and UK Garage as well as Grime. It also reminded me of what a riot 21 Seconds is.

I was fascinated by the story about the Rock preset found on the Casio MT-40 that inspired Under Mi Sleng Teng and the programming of the preset by Hiroko Okuda whose undergraduate thesis was on Reggae, leading to a chicken and egg situation: did Okuda subliminally influence the birth of a new Reggae with the track, or did Reggae itself create the rougher sound of Sleng Teng?

Because I’m not black and am lost in my white privilege, no matter how much I try to escape it, I hadn’t appreciated an aspect of black Britishness that Boakye talks about when discussing the importance of  London Posse to Grime. They were the first British rap artists who didn’t put on an American accent.

I was barely out of primary school when I first heard a London Posse record. It had honestly never occurred to me that rap could be delivered in anything other than an American accent. I’d heard Derek B in the ’80s and assumed that was it – rappers from the same country I lived in had to put on a ‘rap voice’, which meant an American voice. The subsequent problems over authenticity were palpable, even to my pre-adolescent consciousness. UK rap felt mimicky and gimmicky, a shy pastiche of The Real Thing that came from Somewhere Else, Very Far Away. This is something that black Britons have struggled with in the ongoing popularisation of blackness in the mainstream consciousness: the shadow cast by black American success and subsequent pressures to echo African-Americanism.

Boakye is eloquent on the conflicts that make up being black and British and on why Grime is such an important genre for those like him who are trying to construct a persona out of those chaotic conflicts. He’s also good, in his discussion of Original Nuttah, on why Grime is important for British culture generally. It’s something that clarified for me watching DJ Dave when he invited a young white man from the crowd to join him on stage, and watching Stormzy’s set at Glastonbury. Grime is black British music, but it also cuts across the whole of society because it’s authentic and can be embraced by anyone.

Allied to this is Boakye’s acknowledgement of the difficulty mainstream culture has with urban culture that appears to glamorise violence. Grime, like Gangsta Rap, has personas built around an exaggeration of gang culture and gun violence at its core. It’s hypermasculinity and posturing, a cartoon version of the reality of black urban culture for some. Boakye notes that it is the thing that journalists, politicians and concerned citizens like to focus on when faced with something that doesn’t come from their own experience. He says it better than I can, so I’m quoting extensively here.

The reality is that Grime’s hyper-stylised street-ness is one aspect of urban culture that has been magnified to represent the whole.

As a lyrical genre, Grime is characterised by an energy that boils over beyond soundclash bravado into violent aggression. Many (not all, but many) of the lyrics you will see referenced in this book outline violence, stylised or otherwise, perpetrated by young black men against other young black men. The camaraderie, collaboration, craft, criticality and creativity inherent in Grime is all too easily overshadowed by this unhealthy tendency towards black male violence.
In this, the genre does a lot to reinforce some of the least helpful stereotypes often levelled at young black men: that we are violent, hyper-heterosexual, misogynistic, reckless, anti-establishment, unacademic, unduly ostentatious and consumed with the pursuit of wealth. Of course, these are traits that are often prescribed to maleness in general … but the complications are multiplied when applied to black masculinity in particular.
Arguably, Grime is typified by this kind of reactionary masculinity, built on bravado and deep-rooted notions of masculinity in society at large. Cue elephant, casually trampling through the undergrowth. The assumption for men (of all colours) is that vulnerability = weakness, which is very untrue because vulnerability means being able to be harmed, while weakness means not being strong enough to withstand things that can cause harm. Everyone is vulnerable, but men are not allowed to be. Men have to be tough. Men can never be weak.
For black men, added complications lie in the concept of ‘double consciousness’, a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago, whereby the black male is always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. Black men are socially invisible, often unseen and unheard in mainstream channels of society, while simultaneously hyper-visible, as easily noticed as a mark on a blank sheet, and thus open to high levels of scrutiny. Being black comes with a whole list of expectations and preconceptions, many of which are tied to age-old stereotypes rooted in the ‘white gaze’. In the eyes of the dominant, white mainstream, ‘black’ equates to all sorts of traits, including but not limited to athleticism, hypersexuality, threat, violence and anti-intellectualism.
In this context, there is a perverse logic to the masculine posturing we have come to expect from black, urban music. Young black men entering the public sphere readily use masculinity as a shield to their vulnerability, reflecting an exaggerated black masculinity back to the white gaze and to the male gaze in general. It’s a survival strategy and it works.

Boakye reinforces his point in his discussion of The Streets, explaining that Mike Skinner’s success in the public gaze was down to white vulnerability being acceptable in a way that black vulnerability isn’t, leading to predominantly white male music journalists lauding Skinner as the first British rapper to speak to his audience in his own voice, the voice of authentic Britain. Except he wasn’t. London Posse’s Rodney P and Bionic were. But they’re black. Both the effects of expectations of masculinity on young black men and the relationship between Grime and ‘whiteness’ are discussed more fully in essays at the end of the book.

Authenticity is an important part of Grime, whether that’s the authentic anger that comes with being from a marginalised community or the authenticity of self-empowerment through taking ownership of your identity. Boakye covers this in his discussion of Ghetts, an MC who’s had a number of different personas and describes the importance for young black men of finding an identity that resonates with peers and that rejects the identities forced on young black men by a majority white society. Authenticity is something that exists even in the bars of someone as troubled as Cas seems to be. His persona is cartoon-like but his lyrics demonstrate deeply held political beliefs and a dark sense of humour. Boakye posits this as evidence of Cas’s integrity, while acknowledging that there is much about Cas that is problematic, not least his violent attitude towards women.

By far the funniest dissection of integrity is Boakye’s take on Plan B. I’ve never taken to Plan B. I find him too much of a study. Talking about ‘ill Manors’, Boakye puts it this way:

There’s no sense of Plan B getting years of discontent off his chest. His anger is too general, too stylised, and way too tied up in the ‘ill Manors’ franchise. His motivation seems confused. He’s not the chav he claims to be representing. His irony seems forced.

Authenticity comes into question where Boakye talks about the mainstream acceptance of Grime only happening when Grime is simple and cartoon aggressive. Boakye links this to a general trend in consumerism that requires everything to be easily digestible, free of difficulty and lacking in confrontation or challenge. A lot of mainstream embracing of Grime, Boakye argues, is on the basis of disempowerment, reducing the genre’s context to narratives that are more palatable to people outside its community. Boakye cites the ‘rags to riches’ trope as an example of this. Again, there’s an essay that delves into this further at the end of the book.

Grime, then, is for everyone but it’s the world that needs to mould itself to Grime rather than Grime moulding itself to the world. Grime is, for Boakye, black urban culture writ large, something to be celebrated and embraced, but that must remain true to itself.

For all that authenticity is important, there are things that are problematic with Grime. Boakye puts forward arguments around Grime being an adolescent culture, both in the sense of how long it has been around and in the sense of the attitudes of many of its MCs, and also around the very essence of blackness being rooted in opposition to whiteness, a state of otherness established through colonialism and the long term effects of the transatlantic slave trade. Boakye explains the causes clearly but ties himself in knots at times over whether the problematic elements of Grime add to or detract from its authenticity. He clarifies his thoughts more in the summarising appendix to the tracklist and in the additional appendix of essays on selected themes. These essays, by the way, are great and I wish Boakye had flagged them up more as expansions on some of his thinking in the main body of the book. My favourite among them is his reflection on a study his Year 8 class did of the history of Hip Hop, and his observation that adolescent understanding of a culture has its basis not in the official history of that culture but in how they discovered it. They make it their own. This interests me as someone who works in a museum. But I digress.

One of the many things on the list of what black men are supposed to be is misogynistic, and Boakye makes an attempt at addressing the existence of misogyny in Grime, holding up Ms Dynamite quite rightly as the ground breaker in opening up UK Garage to female MCs and leading the way for Grime artists like Shystie, Nolay and Little Simz who all feature in Hold Tight. Boakye acknowledges that Grime, with its exaggerated hypermasculinity, has a way to go but positions Stormzy as a key male Grime artist pushing female objectification to one side and Shystie as an important female Grime artist proving that women can MC too. The misogyny in Grime is problematic for me as a female listener, because I love listening to bars spat out over melodic electronica and I often have to try to tune out the offensive objectifying lyrics. This book has pointed me towards tracks that are less content-difficult and has introduced me to Shystie and Lady Leshurr, though, which is a good thing.

Countering the negative stereotypes of what a black man is supposed to be, Boakye discusses the inspiring ‘Black Boys’ by Bashy. I could listen to this song on loop. The earnest bars shouting out to successful black men from all walks of life, married with the hope that Bashy’s generation will raise black boys to become men like these role models, are complemented by a sweet chorus reassuring those black boys that Bashy is addressing that things will get easier.

This all makes Hold Tight seem very serious. Very serious things are said in it, but it’s a funny book, too, full of cheeky asides, many of them hidden in Boakye’s footnotes. If your habit is to skip footnotes, let this be the one book you don’t do that to. Me, I have to read footnotes. I don’t hold with the notion that if something’s worth saying it should be said in the main body of the text. Footnotes can lead you off on tangents you’d never have dreamed of travelling along. They force you to trust the author that it’s worth dropping below the line, that the something worth saying is truly a hidden gem.

Boakye’s flights of fancy and the imagined essays he could have written about certain tracks and certain MCs are also very entertaining. I really appreciated his view of the world, right down to his grasping of the fact that a lot of what goes into a Grime track is cartoon-like and tongue in cheek and not as offensive as those who like to be offended take it.

After reading this book, and quite rightly so, I still don’t feel qualified to comment on how young black men from urban working class communities should live their lives. I’m not of them. It’s for people like Boakye to comment, people who are from those communities, whose lives are necessarily and definingly lived in opposition to the dominant culture that I’m a part of.

Thanks to reading this book, though, I do feel I have a better understanding of the mental, emotional and political place Grime comes from. Grime is now more to me than just dance music with bars spat over it, something that I enjoy listening to on a pop culture level. It has a socio-cultural depth to it that I can understand in relation to the music that comes out of any marginalised community.

There’s plenty that I don’t get and will never get about not just Grime but any culture that wears a set of prejudices like a badge of belonging. No matter how hard Boakye tries to set these elements of Grime in context, occasionally acting as an apologist for them, it’s not part of who I am and it makes a detailed listening to Grime uncomfortable. I don’t get homophobia, transphobia or misogyny (obviously). To me, they are expressions of insecurity, an aggressive defence against things considered to be weaknesses. It’s egregiously true of the way the white cis-gender majority treats people who don’t share that profile and I struggle with the way communities who are treated as ‘other’ by the majority culture are so willing to ‘other’ people whose existence they see as different. I can appreciate what Boakye says about black culture in particular being aggressively oppositional to the culture that has tried to dominate and oppose blackness, but it doesn’t make sense that this opposition also includes opposition to other minority cultures. To be fair, Boakye does express his own concerns about these aspects of Grime in one of the additional essays.

I have all sorts of feelings towards grime that have led me to writing this book. I’m exhilarated by its energy and exuberance but frustrated by its adherents to blunt masculinity. I revel in the wit and the wordplay but worry about the misogyny. I love the casual indifference Grime takes towards the rules of decorum, but can’t help but see the more insidious rules that govern its evolution.

I know that my whiteness affords me privileges, that there are prejudices I never have to experience let alone deal with on a daily basis, but I’m from a working class background and I’m a woman existing in a male-centric world, so I’ve experienced an amount of prejudice. This book makes clear that, however you are marginalised by society, you don’t have to lie down and take it. You can find a way to assert who you are and refute who society says you are. This is evidenced by Boakye’s acknowledgement of Grime moving out of its urban London heartlands, with scenes developing in Manchester, Birmingham, the East Midlands, even (or perhaps most understandably given its particular social problems) Blackpool.

For all the thinking and personal discomfort and challenge this book has encouraged, I’ve also got two cracking playlists on Spotify thanks to its tracklist format and the track titles dropped into Boakye’s discussion. That’s not something you get with every book. Hold tight, Jeffrey Boakye. I hope that was one of your intentions.

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2 thoughts on “Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime

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