God and Grime – The Religious Literacy of British Hip Hop 30 June 2017

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“Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world” famously said Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. It’s more likely he was thinking about hymns and orchestral overtures than hip-hop, rap, or grime – but the relationship between music and religion persists. Ebony Utley wrote “Rap and Religion” about the seeming juxtaposition between references to violent crime and to God, to Jesus and forgiveness, in rap music. Academic Suad Abdul Khabeer examined “Muslim Cool” in the United States, at how Islam pervades American hip hop and expressions of black identity. What about the United Kingdom? Is the same relationship present? And does it reflect the same multireligious diversity found in America?

Grime is Britain’s most distinctive contribution to the genre of hip hop. It might sound like rap, but its roots are different. When I was a teenager, I used to listen to the local pirate radio station Garage FM. Garage music was heavy with bass, fast paced, with emceeing that was practically incomprehensible over the fuzzy reception. It’s from garage music that grime emerges most strongly. The music is usually electronic, produced by talented artists on a laptop and keyboard with incredible musical aptitude, often homemade (hence “garage”). The lyrics are aggressive and punchy, and intimately tied to life in Britain. Unlike American hip-hop, sociologist Lee Barron contends grime is less focused on ‘structural issues’ and more on the ‘everyday’. Hip-hop focused on spaces of the city, the ‘ghetto’, the ‘hood’ and the ‘projects’. Grime maintained this, speaking of London postcodes and the imagined boundaries of estates and London tube stations. But Barron argues while hip-hop slipped into celebrations of “ghetto fabulous” wealth, grime opted to focus on the mundane.

“Last night, we got so high
We were dancing round on that ceiling
This morning, PG Tips
Nurofen and some biscuits”
Kano, Drinking In The West End

“Yeah, I used to wear Gucci
Put it all in the bin cause that’s not me”
Skepta, That’s Not Me

The songs and lyrics are accounts of “lived experiences” says Barron, “Wiley’s “Bow  E3” invokes the council estate he came from, itemizing the various streets which comprise the urban zone”. The sum of it all is that “Grime, from an ethnographic perspective, offers a holistic social, ethnic, and gendered perception on British culture”. I can’t help but think of Skepta’s line though, “this ain’t a culture, it’s my religion”. If grime is an insight into culture, postcode wars, and the everyday of East London life, what does it tell us about religion in modern Britain?

The Church and the Road

Skepta’s line “this ain’t a culture, it’s my religion” sets the stage for much of what grime music tells us about religion. First, religion matters to these artists. Second, grime rappers and their audience are incredibly religiously literate.

The argument that religion matters is nowhere seen more clearly than Stormzy’s debut album – “Gang Signs and Prayer” released early 2017. The album cover evokes the Last Supper – inspiring BBC Newsbeat to ask art historian Professor Khadija von Zinnenburg to analyse the image. “I really like this complete immersion in the black studio – the sitelessness or the locationlessness of it,” she says.  “To draw it into a photographic studio has something very cinematic and high-tech about it, rather than the much more documentary-type things that he’s done in the past, that are much more roving around his neighbourhood.”  Here, she says, “he’s elevating himself into high art.”  The obvious comparison isn’t missed either, “’he’s obviously thinking of himself as Jesus Christ” she adds. Listeners to the album might disagree however. The idea of a comparison to Jesus Christ has shadows of Kanye West type bragging (who rapped “I know He the most high, but I am a close high”), but the message of Stomzy’s album suggests something different. The allusions to the Last Supper while dressed in all black and balaclavas is summed up by Stormzy in the first song – “we were doing road and doing church”. The image, I think, speaks much more about the central theme of his album – the sometimes violent, sometimes grim life, in urban London, and the religious meaning that pervades it.

“Gang Signs and Prayer” became the first grime album to rank #1 in the charts in the United Kingdom, Stormzy is perhaps the most successful grime artist yet. His album is experimental too, with RnB beats and throwbacks to gospel music, particularly in “Blinded By Your Grace” parts 1 and 2. The lyrics throughout are intense, oscillating from the standard disses and fighting talk of classical grime, but also dealing with Stormzy’s battle with depression, his pride at providing for his mother, and perhaps more than anything – his intense faith in God.

“You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve” –
Stormzy, Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2

A theme that runs throughout Gang Signs and Prayer is salvation and hope in God.

Took a little break from the game, started praying
Man, I had to get my mind right
Stormzy, First Things First

The recurring message in his debut album demonstrates something found consistently across grime music – religion is a part of life, perhaps the most important. The significance of this is only pronounced when you step back and compare with “mainstream” society and its view of religion. People identify less with religion, according to the 2011 census. Church attendance is at an all-time low according to figures released by the Anglican Church. Almost 3 out of 5 Britons feel religion is the cause of more evil than good according to a YouGov poll. Another poll by YouGov found only 25% of young people (between 18-25) believe in God.

Grime artists buck these trends. Why? Well, because grime music is from London. The national picture hides the fact that believers and non-believers are not equally distributed across Britain. Wales is the least religious part of the UK if census figures are to be believed, whereas London is the most religious. When I spoke to Stephen Timms, MP for Newham, he was clear, London is a global city of faith. “Church attendance is rising in London, the Church of England is building its first new church building in London since the 1950s, and on top of that, we have very large mosques, temples, one just opened in my constituency last month”. Newham in East London isn’t far from the heartlands of grime music. Both grime artists and their audience approach religion not as a forgotten relic of the past, but as a visceral part of their life.

Religious Literacy

The calls for greater religious literacy come from all directions. Harvard University recently launched an online course on religious literacy to widespread welcome (JK Rowling even tweeted it out!). Christian charity Lapido Media recently rebranded itself “Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism”. The Bishop of Norwich suggested that the BBC dropping “Songs of Praise” was “another nail in the coffin of our religious literacy as a nation”.  There’s something about that comment by Bishop of Norwich Graham James that I think is ironic. While Songs of Praise is no doubt a valued part of British broadcasting for some, it doesn’t really serve as an example of religious literacy – it’s not just that it is only Christian, but that it is a very particular expression of Christianity – of Anglican hymns and rural churches.

By contrast, take the following lines from artist Skepta: –

“You want act like a G for the camera,
You say you’re Muslim, you say you’re Rasta,
Say you don’t eat pork, don’t easy pussy,
Liar, you’re just an actor,
Blood, you’re not on your deen,
And if Selassie saw you he would say,
“Blood, take off the red, gold and green””

– Skepta, Shutdown

Shutdown is among the classic grime hits, while it only peaked at number 39 in the charts, it has 28million views on YouTube and significant radio airplay for such an underground hit. It never went as mainstream as Stormzy’s “Shut Up”, but it was nonetheless one of the biggest grime tracks of 2015.

To comprehend the lyrics the listener needs to be familiar with a) Muslim dietary habits, b) Rastafarianism in general and in particular their sexual ethics, c) the significance of red, gold and green, d) the Muslim phrase “you’re not on your deen”. Deen is the Arabic word for religion, and being “on your deen” or “on the deen” is Anglophone Islamic phrase for religious commitment. Skepta is not Muslim, and his use of the phrase so casually and comfortably however tells us something important – the religious literacy of the audience of grime. There is more packed into that one verse by Skepta than the average Religious Education class.

“Shutdown” isn’t an exception. Krept and Konan’s soundtrack contribution to the 2016 film and cult hit Brotherhood is a song titled “Dunya”, an Arabic-Islamic term, this time referring to the physical world or life, contrasted with the hereafter or paradise. Artist Ghetts often uses the phrase “wallahi” in his lyrics, a phrase used by Muslims meaning “I swear to God”. Desperado raps that “the life we’re living is haram”, the Muslim term for a sinning, before the next line “some mans turn to Quran, some mans turn the Bible”. Or perhaps even Lady Leshurrs’ wordplay, “I’m gonna do this fast, Ramadan”.

The bottom line is pretty clear – if you’re a fan of grime, you need to be familiar with a diverse religious vocabulary, drawn from Islam as much as the Bible. And it wouldn’t hurt to know about Rastafarianism either. Turning back to Lee Barron’s argument, if grime is a form of ethnography, mapping the urban landscape spatially and culturally, then the urban landscape is religious and diverse – and your average East London teenager will likely be more religiously literate than his equivalent in Oxford or Swansea.

It’s a reminder that calls for religious literacy, though important, sometimes come from a middle-class white elite whose complaints reflect their own monocultural environments which are increasingly becoming secular.

Likewise, while former Prime Minister David Cameron called for Muslims to integrate into Britain, and a report by Louise Casey suggested Muslims have yet to become part of the British fabric of life, they speak largely from their white-bread backgrounds – in the world of grime, Islam is a part of everyday life.

It’s worth asking the question though – is this religious literacy restricted to Grime? Does British hip-hop in general have anything to offer? Cashmere, an album by the Swet Shop Boys, provides a partial answer. The Swet Shop Boys, a hip-hop group consisting of US rapper Heems, British producer Redinho, and the multi-talented Riz Ahmed (of Star Wars: Rogue One fame). Riz Ahmed has a history of producing music that spoke of his experiences as a British Muslim. His single “Post 9/11 Blues” recounted the increasing suspicion faced by Muslims, but also his own success:

“But its okay,
Post 9/11 I been getting paid,
Playing terrorists on telly, getting songs made” –
Riz MC, Post-9/11 Blues

Swet Shop Boy’s 2016 album Cashmere takes this same tone throughout. Shottin is about a prison convert to Islam, who faces more scrutiny from the authorities as a Muslim than as a drug dealer. T5 is about ubiquitous airport security checks, Zain Malik about the mainstream (and cultural appropriation) South Asian identity:

“Look Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him
There’s more than one direction to get to paradise” –
Swet Shop Boys, Zayn Malik

Much like Grime, the lyrics are peppered and layered with religious metaphors and terminology, in this case, drawn from a Muslim and Hindu context of South Asia. Din-E-iLahi (the religion of God) is perhaps the most powerful, with Riz MC and Heems both speaking of their relationship to religion respectively. The title of the song is a reference to Mohgul Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar’s syncretic religion, translated as “the religion of God”.

Riz MC:

“Allah you the OG, Bhagavan you the one bruv I chase my early memory, when my dad played me “One Love” Qawwali on the tape brah, Bob Marley on the wave brah”

Heems:

“Peep me on the TV, I’m a talking head, a pundit Hindu Center, Queens, catch me talkin’ to my pandit He said I should start a start-up, maybe he would fund it I said you a priest, where you get so many funds at”

So while Grime is speaking about a black expression of religion, one which includes Islam, Christianity and Rastafarianism. Swet Shop Boys are a South Asian expression. In both examples, religion is front and centre. Dr Carl Morris, an academic at the University of Central Lancashire, has written a PhD on the intersection of music and Muslim youth culture – and its hip-hop where this intersection is most vibrant and diverse. But the central role of religion in grime music, and the religious literacy presumed in its listeners, should be a reminder of the vibrancy of faith in parts of Britain. And if the BBC are really looking to keep Songs of Praise fresh – maybe it’s time to the extend the invitation to Wiley and Skepta.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

A graduate of Religion and Theology BA and a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain. Abdul-Azim is currently completing a PhD on Islam in Wales.