MC Novelist paves way for political grime at Born & Bred

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Amid wailing sirens, gunshots and a tongue-in-cheek sample of David Cameron’s Eton-educated voice proclaiming “Keeping people safe is the first duty of government,” grime MC Novelist burst unequivocally onto the scene in 2015, lyrical guns blazing and rhythmic cannons firing in “Street Politician.”

Novelist, a 19-year-old black Englishman from Lewisham, South London, is one of the most promising and exciting voices in the grime scene right now. Grime, which has its roots in U.K. garage music, bass music and soundsystem culture runs parallel to its U.S. relative hip-hop, and the two share a fair bit of common ground. Both grime and hip-hop stem from a musical expression of the experiences of predominantly black men in under-resourced urban areas. Often, these musicians find their options for social, economic and geographic mobility limited by oppressive racist and classist governmental policies — the prevalence of police brutality both in the U.S. and the U.K., American historical and contemporary Jim Crow laws, an existence shaped by facts such as that a black Londoner is 3.2 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white counterpart — and so many more such occurrences and policies in both countries that have racism and oppression written into the very fabric of their nations.

It follows, then, that like hip-hop, grime is deeply political music. As Dan Hancox wrote for the Guardian in 2015, “The context is easily forgotten: to be a young, working-class black Londoner in the 2000s put you at a higher than average risk of being a victim of crime.” Or, to be blunt: “Grime thrived in part because it described the flaws in New Labour’s otherwise confident, wealthy, ‘modern’ Britain.”

But grime often doesn’t just touch on the environments MCs grow up in — it often goes beyond that, discussing the institutional politics and politicians, such as Prime Minister David Cameron, who created them in the first place.

“Don’t like feds like a pain in the dental / Made one of my Gs go mental,” raps Novelist on “Street Politician.” “Took one of my boys in the van and juiced him / Bitch to the rules that jakes are abusing / And I’m antisocial in the hood / And I still live local / Fuck feds and fuck everyone in the world / That don’t want me to be vocal.”

The popularity of grime and bass music might be reaching beyond its London beginnings and growing and growing across the U.K., but the London scene is still a stronghold of the scene, and festival Born & Bred highlighted the huge wealth of talented MCs, DJs and vocalists who call London home. Co-hosted by festival production company The Rest Is Noise and legendary London station Rinse FM (whose broadcasts as a pirate radio station were an integral part of the early days of grime), Born & Bred took place over the weekend of June 4 and 5 in Haggerston Park, Hackney.

“For the last three decades London’s collision of rave-inspired dance music and soundsystem culture has acted as a flashpoint for a succession of hugely influential sounds: from dub, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass to garage, dubstep, grime, house and beyond,” wrote The Rest Is Noise as it announced the festival’s line-up in early 2016. “Born & Bred … (was created) with the intention of celebrating that living history and the people involved in making it.”

Highlights were rising grime MC Nadia Rose’s Sunday set, which included the debut of what she announced onstage as “some new music produced by Toddla T,” Crazy Cousinz and Kyla’s live performance of “Do You Mind” (currently resurging in popularity because of its sample on Drake’s chart-topping “One Dance”) and a surprise performance by Peckham-born pop-house queen Katy B.

Novelist’s forehead glistening with sweat, he broke into tunes such as “1 Sec,” “One and Only” and “Endz,” a track about growing up in Lewisham, South London, with one of his 12 mates onstage waving the bandana like a flag for everyone to see.

“Big up all the South London mandem — the Lewisham. We’re doing it,” he said, a 19-year-old from Lewisham headlining a festival and waving a black handkerchief with his own name stitched on it.

Soon, the tracksuit top Novelist produced in collaboration with Los Angeles-based fashion label Joyrich he wore came off — one that, like the handkerchief printed with swirling white paisley, features the name of the clothing company he designed it for. This time, the “Joyrich” sat squarely above his own heart.

Born & Bred may have been created with the intention of celebrating living history, but in booking acts like Nadia Rose and Novelist, it’s also making history of its own — opening up doors and rewriting futures, both of those on stage and those in the crowd.

Booking acts is revolutionary when you’re booking the voices of the future, when you’re giving mics and sound systems to people for whom every word they release out into the world matters and who are changing it with every beat they jump on and every single bar they spit, and Novelist is one of the most brilliant and no-bullshit examples of the power of the word, written and then rapped, spoken, yelled: lived aloud.

Contact Tyler Adams at [email protected].