This is a video that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter this week. It’s called "F The Tories Freestyle" (rude word censorship, songwriter's own) and features a man rapping about the many, many problems with Britain today. Over cloying strings borrowed from a Coldplay song, MC NxtGen – a guy from Loughborough in his mid-twenties known as Sean Donnelly to his mother – sprays bars about people being "brainwashed by Britain’s Got Talent" and calls David Cameron "a prick".
So far, so student debate society, but inside four-and-a-half breathless minutes NxtGen manages to neatly wrap-up everything from the privatisation of public services to the death of 53-year-old Stephanie Bottrill, who walked out in front of a lorry on the M6 in May and cited the Bedroom Tax in her suicide note.
It’s the sort of rousing, Us-vs-Them rhetoric that you tend to hear at anti-austerity rallies, so naturally certain parts of Britain’s political left have latched onto the song as an "A Change Is Gonna Come" for 2013, and perhaps even an early sign of some sort of widespread radical awakening. Owen Jones has tweeted it a couple of times, saying that NxtGen "sums up exactly what’s been done to this country… Not gonna lie. Found it pretty emotional". Guardian Music posted it on their Tumblr with the words: "This coruscating political freestyle, from UK rapper MC NxtGen, is really quite something."
And even if his political nous makes Plan B sound like Zizek, I agree with pretty much everything NxtGen says. In fact, lots of people agree with him. You can barely move in the broadsheet comment pages for articles decrying the lack of youth political engagement, so who doesn’t want to see a new wave of righteous, informed protest music that aims to catalyse real social change? Yet, even as I listen to him expertly rhyme "the vulnerable are made to walk the plank" with "we had to bail out the banks", I get the feeling that this is not the song to do it. And I get that feeling because, simply put, it just fucking sucks.
I can’t imagine it being played on the radio; I can barely imagine a music fan (as opposed to someone who'd describe themselves as a "political activist / radical thinker" on their Twitter bio) tracking it down and listening to it on the internet. The video is preceded by a title card in which NxtGen suggests that Jamal Edwards, founder of SB.TV, is refusing to broadcast his work because "he has meetings with torie pigs and his idol is Branson". It could be that there’s a high-level government conspiracy at work, or it could be that Edwards just isn't a fan of this sort of earnest, right-on sloganeering.
NxtGen has form with this sort of thing. Among his other YouTube clips, there’s "We should think ourselves lucky", in which he raps over a slideshow of photographs of natural disasters in poor countries, and a track that’s called "Greedy Tosser ft MC Cameron". (You can see where he’s going with that one.) However, his biggest hit to date, by far, was "Andrew Lansley Rap", recorded back in March of 2011. This "House of the Rising Sun"-sampling protest against the sell-off of NHS services was so beloved by the health workers’ union Unison that they stumped up £5,000 to pay for its recording and an accompanying video. Their support helped push it past half-a-million views on YouTube.
Where did that get them, or him, or us? Nowhere in particular. While NxtGen’s heart is in the right place, it feels like something's missing from his music. But what is it that's missing, and does it say more about his music or my own response to it? Why do I think it sucks so much? What's wrong with protest music? What's wrong with me?
It could be that as soon as a song enters the twittersphere orbit of "the left", any counter-cultural cachet is instantly sucked out of it. It becomes simply too lame to be taken on board by the young people it's ostensibly trying to speak to and about. If you’re a rap fan, an endorsement from Owen Jones or Unison is effectively the same as finding out that Cameron's been using it to soundtrack late-night Cotswolds bong sessions. Immediately, the music becomes politicised and is co-opted into a pre-existing debate for which the battle lines have long since been drawn. Right or left, it doesn't really matter: it's no longer NxtGen's message, it's been absorbed by and now belongs to Twitter's squabbling propagandists. Which, for kids, probably isn't a great look; no one's pretending to be Richard Dawkins in the school playground.
The counter-argument to that, of course, is that NxtGen can't be blamed for his backers, that these are his own opinions and that he really cares about them. But is NxtGen just too earnest for his own good? Not giving a shit has always looked cooler than giving a shit, and NxtGen so obviously and eagerly wants us to know that he gives a shit that, in a perverse way, it becomes impossible to take him seriously. This is terrifying, of course, because it means we’re left in an irony-loop where people think that "political engagement" means posting links to news stories on social media and comparing them to plotlines from The Thick of It. Is that the answer to the problems we have in this country? It seems unlikely.
It could be that it’s the total lack of subtlety that makes "F The Tories" hard to love. Or a question of skill: that NxtGen’s flow simply isn’t good enough to stand nose-to-nose with rappers who actually sell records. Yet both of these concerns are hard to justify – what's wrong with being direct? And isn't it sad that you can't rap about something that actually bothers you without people sneering?
It could be that, lyrically, "F The Tories" is too specific, too full of references pulled from the current news cycle to stand the test of time as a political statement. It undoubtedly has a short shelf life, yet what’s wrong with NxtGen speaking of the world as he finds it? Isn’t it enough that he’s speaking up about the here and now without expecting him to make a timeless statement? Surely we can't expect our rappers to be futurologists?
Perhaps it's something more attritional – perhaps we've just become jaded to political pop. I was barely born when Billy Bragg took his Red Wedge on the road with the explicit aim of helping Labour oust Margaret Thatcher in the 1987 election. I am old enough, however, to read the history books that say she was returned with over 40 percent of the vote and almost 60 percent of the seats. Even Bragg now admits the whole thing was an abject failure and that a new form of musical agitation will have to be found. He’d probably love NxtGen, but that’s kind of the problem. Their failure is our failure, too – a ghost that haunts any serious attempt to conceive of pop music as something that can have a tangible effect on British politics.
There is, of course, the argument that NxtGen doesn't understand the politics he's trying to have a tangible effect on. It’s easy to call Cameron "a prick", harder to understand the intricacies of and then rally people behind a political ideology – i.e. Socialism – that, currently, doesn’t even fucking exist in this country. To be fair, nobody is articulating anything much in the way of a solution to austerity, least of all Ed Miliband, so you can’t expect rappers or pop stars to start name-dropping Stiglitz or advancing new-Keynesian economics. Yet without that sort of agenda we’re left with the same tragedy that consumed the Occupy movement: a generation of young people eager to do something, anything, but with no idea how to do it, or how it might work.
Maybe the problem is that as a track "F The Tories" is just too naked an attempt to tug at the heartstrings – in its own way, it feels cynical, a bunch of platitudes knotted together across a Coldplay sample. We know what those strings expect us to do because we've seen it on X Factor. We know the Pavlovian effects it has on the tear ducts of a nation attuned to hard luck montages. Yet I can't even grant it that much in the way of emotional heft. I recoil because it lacks the sophistication of the mainstream media, which at least feels familiar and comforting even as it tells us nothing and sells us everything.
Maybe modern protest music's real problem lies in an inability to advance the conversation. It's no longer simply enough to say what everyone's thinking. It’s not enough to recycle slogans or to set protest speeches or angry tweets to a beat because – by the time you've done so – everyone's heard what you've got to say already. We seem to have reached a point in history when pop culture is too shallow to contain the rhetoric of protest and too slow to keep up with the political discourse. Maybe the message is hamstrung by the failures of the medium.
It could be all of these factors at once, but either way the song remains the same. And it still fucking sucks. I'm just not sure whether that says more about the music, the political moment we find ourselves in, or me.
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinEGPerry
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