Sometimes a redemption story is all the more powerful when it is so long overdue. The U.K.'s annual music industry awards show, the Brits, is not exactly known for having its finger on the pulse when it comes to picking winners, let alone for epochal performances on the night. So when 24-year-old grime MC Stormzy achieved both on Wednesday, it was a signal something major had changed.
While Kendrick Lamar fans marvel as the world-conquering rapper continues to be snubbed by the Grammys, their British equivalent seems to have finally, dramatically turned the corner. Stormzy triumphed over the more commercially successful Ed Sheeran for two the night's biggest awards — best British male and album the year (for his epic, lightning-fast debut, Gang Signs and Prayer). He also delivered a stunning new freestyle, rebuking British Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling last year's Grenfell Tower catastrophe in London, where 71 people died and many survivors still remain without permanent homes.
In a startling performance, standing under a rain cloud and a single spotlight, the south London MC stripped to the waist and delivered a righteous tirade against complacent and out–touch “criminal” politicians (“You should do some jail time, you should pay some damages”) and the right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail (“They tell us that we're thugs, I try and bust a myth”), before praising the “black girl magic” his mother and sisters. In a fiery and emotional five-minute performance, the self-declared “new king” London's long-simmering, suddenly mainstream grime genre turned what had historically been a drab and forgettable industry affair into a major national talking point — and took home two the biggest awards to boot, joining Dua Lipa (Best Female Solo Artist and British Breakthrough Act) as the night's big winner.
There were clues this moment might have been coming. For most the genre's 15-year existence, grime has remained a critically revered but largely underground affair — evolving without the support the music industry, after emerging out illegal pirate radio stations in impoverished parts inner London, an innovative and ferocious hybrid U.K. garage and double-time rapping. In the late 2000s, early pioneers like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Skepta eventually tried their hands at mainstream-courting electro-rap in search chart success, but the genre's marquee names are now taking over the pop world on their own terms, with an uncompromising sound and — as Stormzy exemplifies — a fearless confidence in speaking truth to power.
The genre's outsider status has been transformed in the last 18 months, with Skepta winning the Mercury album prize for his Konnichiwa LP, and his crew Boy Better Know winning regular festival headline slots, along with Stormzy. The industry has been very keen to catch up and engage with a scene that — essentially given no other choice — has stoically built its own parallel infrastructure, through YouTube channels like SB:TV and GRM Daily. Both Stormzy and Skepta released their albums independently, and seem determined to maintain that status – it hasn't hurt their reputations, or their sales.
Last summer, U.K. industry body the BPI published a report highlighting that grime sales and streams had nearly doubled, and were pulling along the entire music industry behind them — as well as raising their prile internationally. Gef Taylor, chief executive the BPI and Brit Awards, commented that grime was having a serious impact on the charts and the mainstream, “not only helping to shape domestic consumption and trends, it is also] becoming a flag-bearer for Britain’s global reputation as a hub musical innovation.”
The Brits have certainly been slow on the uptake, and were frequently derided during the 1990s and 2000s for being risk-averse to the point courting ridicule — usually awarding and booking legacy artists or the safest pop stars (Annie Lennox has won best female solo artist six times, and Robbie Williams has been best male four times). This came to a head in the 2015 ceremony, when Kanye West's appearance saw him spontaneously bring the leading lights the grime scene onstage for his performance “All Day,” including Stormzy and Skepta. “A statement was made,” the “Godfather Grime,” Wiley, commented on the night: “Kanye knows the Brits ain’t letting dons in there like that, so he kicked f the door for us.”
The irony was simple and powerful: there was no way those artists would be invited to perform for the stuffed shirts under their own steam; the British music industry was no meritocracy, and it took an American superstar to recognize British talent. There was a racial dimension too, and the 2015 debacle was followed by an even worse 2016 for the Brits, when — with grime and U.K. rap thriving like never before — not a single black artist was nominated for a major category. It prompted threats an artist boycott, a #BritsSoWhite campaign, and damnation in lyrical form from rising star Stormzy, in which he called the Brits' lack recognition him and his peers “taking the piss” and “embarrassing.”
The organizing committee responded, at last, introducing over 700 new members to the 1,200-strong voting academy for the 2017 awards – in doing so increasing its composition from 15 percent BAME to 17 percent, and just 30 percent female to 48 percent. Keen to address all the bad publicity, the BPI also reached out to the young entrepreneurs behind GRM Daily, loaning them some the Brits team to help run their underground “Rated Awards” ceremony, and inviting GRM’s founders onto the newly — some would say belatedly — formed diversity board.
After Stormzy's number 1 debut album, and a 2017 Glastonbury Festival performance which captured the national mood more than any other – paying a heartfelt tribute to the Grenfell victims, and leading a sing-along in support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – the young MC had already seized the British pop culture zeitgeist. It's heartening that the U.K.'s biggest music awards ceremony has finally caught up with the pace, and it also functions as a gauntlet thrown down to their U.S. counterparts. If the Brits can make the changes necessary to celebrate those at the vanguard pop music, can the Grammys finally do the same?
Dan Hancox is the author 'Inner City Pressure: The Story Grime', published by William Collins on 17 May. He is on Twitter @danhancox.