The Mandem Need You: Can Grime4Corbyn succeed where Red Wedge failed?
“I’m a socialist, which means my glass is half full. I’m encouraged by the young people being mobilised.” – Billy Bragg
“The mandem need you.” – Novelist
“I’ve never spoken about politics before,” Boy Better Know cofounder and creative director JME admits. Sitting in Islington’s sun blushed Spoke café, the MC goes on to concede that he has actively encouraged audiences to disengage from the UK’s current electoral system entirely. Opposite him, casually thumbing through a glossy copy of Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose’s exhaustive oral history on grime subculture, is Jeremy Corbyn. MP of the constituency since 1983, the present leader of the Labour Party appears both placid yet assuredly dogmatic. As JME continues, the unlikely pair’s rapport seems resolute, both respectfully enamoured by one another. For the first time, it feels, JME is listening to a politician say all the right things and in return the politician is witnessing a non-voter realign his democratic obligations. Corbyn smiles humbly and with an air of rhetorical deliberation, “political change doesn’t always come from politicians, does it?”
This receptive interaction with one of grime’s most enterprising dignitaries may at first appear to be something of a war of attrition on Corbyn’s part. Why opt to prioritise a recorded discourse with a Tottenham based label head over the customary leaflet sweeping, podium polling strategies of his peers other than to, as JME puts it, appear “more human”? However, it’s an astute move from the parliamentary black sheep. Grime, as a life-devoted movement, represents a politically jaded youth culture in which many of its celebrated names publicly deride the bureaucratic divide between government and apathetic millennials. In the 2015 general election, the turnout gap between old voters and young voters was hazardously disproportionate. A miserly 48% of 18-24 year-olds went to the polls, while an overwhelming 78% of citizens aged 65 and over made their older voices clamour out above the din of youthful despondency. Now, in a public drive to narrow this disparity and inspire the younger generation to vote, Corbyn, with BBK’s backing, is taking action.
JME isn’t the first MC to profess his support for Labour. AJ Tracey, Stormzy, Ghetts, Novelist and Big Zuu are but a concentrated selection of stars that have, in recent times, urged their followers on social media to register to vote and, more specifically, vote for Corbyn. There’s also a #grime4Corbyn registration website, which features the instrumental Corbyn Riddim track produced by DA. This led to the hashtag being tweeted more than #LabourManifesto. Since the election was called, over a million young people registered with numerous surveys showing support for Labour with a 55% lead. It’s a staggering statistic when compared to 2015’s meagre turnout. And while grime’s seal of approval may not be the solitary driver in accruing these results, it’s certainly an endorsement that has galvanised the music-savvy youth to engage.
Grime is a highly influential British export. It speaks to a generation in their language, wearing their clothes and living their lives. A collective of culturally conscious MCs may not initially present themselves as leaders of parliamentary reform, but the importance of celebrity presence in mainstream politics has resonated with the younger voters for decades. From Killer Mike fist pumping senator Bernie Sanders to Clint Eastwood conversing with an empty chair at the 2012 Republication National Convention, cultural activists are intrinsic to a politician’s integrity. Yet, no incentive to motivate the youth vote mirrors that of JME & co.’s model as profoundly as the Red Wedge movement in the run up to the 1987 general election.
Formed in November 1985 by punk poet and activist Billy Bragg, Red Wedge comprised of a collective of left-leaning musicians and artists with the fundamental intent to oust Conservative rule by encouraging politically indifferent British citizens to vote. An organisation ‘not of but for’ the Labour Party, Bragg, accompanied by Paul Weller and The Communard’s lead singer Jimmy Somerville organised benefit concerts and endorsed major tours, which included appearances from Madness, The Smiths, Tom Robinson, Sade, The Specials, The Blow Monkeys and The The to name a few. The artists, many of whom were arguably at the zenith of their cultural influence, used TV interviews, radio airtime and their own independently run Well Red magazine to deliver their liberal tidings.
"Grime, as a life-devoted movement, represents a politically jaded youth culture in which many of its celebrated names publicly deride the bureaucratic divide between government and apathetic millennials"
Bragg was vehemently against Thatcher’s cabinet. Labour had fallen victim to two humiliating electoral defeats and was in desperate need of modernisation; a company of likeminded personalities (much like today’s grime community) that epitomised the classless landscape of contemporary pop culture. Bragg’s overtly socialist lyrics coupled with his street level activism made him Labour’s poster boy for change. The name Red Wedge was adopted from a lithographic soviet propaganda poster from 1919. The artwork, designed by constructivist artist El Lissitzky, was titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge in reference to the Bolshevik faction defeating the anti-communist White Movement confederation during the Russian Civil War. The image of a red triangle penetrating a large white circle was also reinterpreted by Bragg and his musical comrades. However, despite the poster’s communist ancestry, the 1985 movement insisted it was not a communist organisation.
Instead, Red Wedge members endeavoured to represent anti-Conservative ideals. Other than a public endorsement from Gary Numan, Thatcher’s cabinet lacked any high-profile pro-Tory lobby within the music community. Artists such as Red Wedge cofounder Paul Weller went on record arguing that no single media outlet symbolised leftist ideas but rather “bombarded” audiences with right-wing propaganda. The Jam and Style Council guitarist took it upon himself to remedy this political imbalance. During a Red Wedge benefit gig, a heckler can be heard demanding what Weller’s involvement can really offer society. “What am I going to do for you? I ain’t going to do nothing for you. What you going to do for yourself? That’s what we’re trying to say.” It’s a candid response that aimed not to provoke but to persuade the youth to stand up and be counted.
Regularly performing to sold out venues, Weller firmly believed that the power of pop culture could enforce radical political change. “You’ve got to stop talking in that antiquated way and bring everything back up to date,” he said on the state of Britain under the Tories. “It needs to be more stylised and streamlined as far as I’m concerned.” The movement initiated and supported multiple youth projects across the country and launched their own development programme working with young people; an area of funding the organisation believed was lacking within the Conservative manifesto.
However, there was also some left wing prudence towards Red Wedge’s motives. While fundamentally supporting Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, certain adversaries argued Red Wedge’s politics were too vague. Groups such as socialist band The Housemartins whom were invited to to join the alliance outwardly refused as the organisation did not agree with ‘nationalising the music industry’. In some form, this vagueness may have contributed to Labour’s infamous loss in 1987 and the Conservative’s third consecutive victory, which eventually led to the formal disbandment of Red Wedge in 1990. The movement failed in its primary objective yet succeeded in its attempt to excite the younger voters through the medium of pop culture.
Today, our political vistas are uncannily similar to that of the 1980s. Once again, the opposition is under the command of a socialist veteran gaining sway in the polls. So similar is the landscape, in fact, that former Red Wedger Paul Weller returned to the leftist foreground and organised a “People Powered: Concerts For Corbyn” event in aid of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum in December of last year. And while grime’s stars have not exactly unionised as blatantly as Bragg’s Red Wedge initiative, their stalwart belief in Corbyn coupled with their cultural affinity towards the younger generation is undeniable. Grime finally possesses the power to potentially incite a political upheaval and maybe, just maybe even prevail where Red Wedge faltered.