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Gang Signs and Prayer – God and Grime Music

Gang Signs and Prayer – God and Grime Music

Dan Curtis on grime music as a confessional relationship with God.

Grime. An aggressive and urgent form of underground rap music, born out of the estates and pirate radio stations of Bow E3, London. Grime has become one of the UK’s biggest musical exports, with British artists touring internationally, reaching larger and larger audiences. There is however, one big name in particular who keeps coming into discussion in the grime scene worldwide, and yet remains rooted in the underground movement, and that’s God.

Some of the biggest artists in grime talk openly in their music about God, or make reference to spiritual themes in their lyrics. Wiley, known as the Godfather of Grime, who was awarded an MBE this year for his service to music, has on many occasions written lyrics about the effects of prayer in his life. Devlin, another big player in the development of the genre, in his first album Bud, Sweat and Tears featured a track called Our Father which was written from God’s perspective, looking down on the world and being ashamed of what humans have done to it.

Younger artist in the game Stormzy produced a Brit Award winning album titled Gang Signs and Prayer in 2017, which was the first grime album to go to number one in the UK charts. The album’s cover is a pastiche of Da Vinci’s last supper, with young black men in balaclavas in the place of the disciples, Stormzy in the centre of the table looking out at us. Alongside the aggressive themes of violence and London life in the album, Stormzy openly talks about prayer and a relationship with God, often contextualised as being learned from his mother. There are two tracks in particular called ‘Blinded by Your Grace,’ parts 1 and 2, that talk about himself as being saved, and how all that he has as a grime artist has been given to him by God.

Grime therefore could be seen as a confessional genre. A confession of one’s inner struggles, violent desires and questions about the world, in a similar way to the psalms.

The grime scene has much to offer with regard to an engagement with God. But, deeper than these more direct references, I would suggest that the whole genre, whether talking about God or not, has at its core a spiritual thread.

Within the lyrics of grime, I think two themes consistently come up. These are Everyday Grit, and Existential Questions. The theme of Everyday Grit (and here we see that grime is an appropriate name for the genre) deals with the day to day, earthy, grit of living. It asks the questions: Who will I need to fight today? Will I get stabbed today? How do I stay alive today? How do I make money today? And right up alongside these are the Existential Questions: What’s the point of everything? How do I find a way out? Why am I marginalised? Why are so many people killed? How do I keep going down the right path?

In this way grime maps so closely to the Old Testament psalms as to be almost identical. Take the same two categories and we can hear the voice of a psalmist coming through. Everyday Grit: How do I escape my enemies today, Lord? Why am I attacked on all sides? And Existential Questions: How long oh Lord how long? Why is my heart so downcast within me? Why do the wicked prosper? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?

And when you compare violence in the lyrics of grime and the psalms, lines like ‘punch my enemies in the face, break the teeth of the wicked’ (Psalm 3:7), or ‘I beat them as fine as windblown dust’ (Psalm 18:42) could come straight out of the fiercest of grime tracks.

Grime therefore could be seen as a confessional genre. A confession of one’s inner struggles, violent desires and questions about the world, in a similar way to the psalms. A relationship with God is confessional.

The psalms, just like grime tracks, are questioning musical pieces from people groups or persons that are often oppressed and stuck on the edges, whether culturally, spiritually or emotionally.

It is important to remember the voices we hear in grime and the people that developed and own the genre are mostly young black men and women, usually from the poorest areas of the UK’s cities. A people group that knows what it’s like to be marginalised and vilified by the world they live in. Grime music is an asking ‘Why?’, and through the agency of self–produced, raw music–making, is also a striking back. An aggressive and subversive attack against the culture forced upon them due to class and race.  

Again we see the psalms here. The psalms, just like grime tracks, are questioning musical pieces from people groups or persons that are often oppressed and stuck on the edges, whether culturally, spiritually or emotionally.

One fascinating example of this spiritual confessional and questioning of God and life is the 2016 track ‘Said to Me’ by Rival alongside grime veteran Ghetts, featuring singer Casey Lim. The track acts as a open letter to God. A prayer of questioning, criticising God’s methods and the darkness of the world. I quote Rival’s opening in verse in full:

It’s been a while since we caught up
I won’t even lie, I’ve been caught up
Tryna re–sort life but drugs I resort to
Cause life ain’t in order, I’m like
How many words do I write or
How many times do I write to a song or
How many songs do I put to an album for you to see
That I’m stuck between doing good and bad
Fully in the middle like Malcolm
Fully in the middle tryna figure the outcome
On a few things you’ve done like
Why you let my friend get pregnant
Feel the excitement and kill her son?
An hour she had him living?
You took him away before he knew morals
And you’re letting me what? Just keep sinning?
That’s kinda f**ked up
Nah, it’s kinda cut up
You let the heartless get rich
And let all these good–hearted people suffer
That’s crazy
I’m living a nightmare, hoping for a daydream
To let my mind wander from the pain, please–


 

This tragic piece reads like a modern day Psalm 42. A deep cry of lament to God, of not understanding, of asking why. After this Ghetts’ verse then imagines a story of a father who used to be big in the gangs of his local area, but then whose son is killed in his flat. The father now reflects on his life, the mistakes he has made and the violence in his area and laments. The verse acts a parable, reflecting on the tragic and circular outcomes of violence and hatred. Casey Lim’s final, haunting vocal closes the track with the repeated question ‘Are you watching me too?’

Many may think about grime music and say that it is overtly and needlessly violent and provocative. But looked at in this confessional way, grime may be seen as more authentic than for example the super–palatable pop music that states that if you ‘just believe’ things will all work out, or that everything is going to be alright in the end. A worldview which often privileges those who have the means to easily progress in life. Grime instead, shows that the world is broken, asks the question ‘why?’ and hopes for an answer.

 Image from wikimedia available in the public domain.

Dan Curtis

Dan Curtis

Dan is an artist, arts educator, writer and comedian. He exhibits his artwork widely across the UK and performs as one third of the sketch comedy troupe Salt.



Posted 8 March 2018

Art, Faith, Music, Prayer

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