I'm not sure a Snapchat of four friends doing the dab next to a 4th century Buddha statue is a thing that's happened before. In fact, I'm sure of it. Yet while I'd usually be surprised, having just been stood at the back of a bouncing queue and eventually being welcomed into London's most ornate museum by military-strength beats, I'm fully prepared for a night of firsts. Yes, forget the ornamental marble arches of the South Kensington museum, for tonight it will be coloured with something different: the capital's rising youth counter cultures.
This is the final performance of the Levi's Music Project, a community initiative hoping to inspire and provide a new generation of young musicians with the platform to form the sound of London's future. The project began with the building of a state-of-the-art, engaging space and music studio inside a youth club in Tottenham. Then, for the past 8 weeks, 12 young locals have been holed-up inside, developing their own music with the help of experts and – significantly – Tottenham boy-turned cultural Caesar, Skepta. There's not an artist out there more fitting for leading a musical revolution in the city than the fiercely-independent recent Mercury Winner. And tonight we'll see whether he's managed to complete his wish: to give back to the community he credits for providing him with everything.
After being held at the door ten minutes and a drink longer than expected, we're encouraged to follow the whirls and warbles into the Raphael Gallery. The spectacular, dramatic space is cast in complete darkness, leaving hordes following the lights of their mobiles to its distant stage. Feeling my way through the eerie blackness, catching peripheral glimpses of Renaissance masterpieces, the room is suddenly lit. A long, immersive flame roars on-stage as a growling beat batters from wall-to-wall. Wide-eyes search for an explosive Skepta entrance and soon, a diminutive hooded figure pounces out barking bars. Within a minute, legions of hands of hands are up in the air - under his spell - and voices echo his central lyric "be as one". You'd be fooled, but this is no grime veteran encircling the stage – it is one of the twelve students.
As the track roars on, more youngsters leap out clutching microphones, launching into verses of their own. They're possessed by the kind of adrenaline and raw physicality only found in people that have been waiting their whole lives for a moment. Before we know it, the raucous flames cool down, paving way for a smooth RnB beat. If any scepticism toward the project was festering beforehand, the pitch-perfect, playful duet that follows inspires astonished exchanges in the crowd, doing away with it. Now London simply yearns for the crude sounds of its youth and, as the texture of acoustic guitar ditties, straight-up British Hip-hop and piano ballads unravels before its eyes, that's exactly what it gets.
The most remarkable thing on show tonight is the material. Every bar, beat and verse has been crafted and produced by the students, making for stories that simply aren't told in contemporary music. The satirical observations about emojis and "sliding into DMs on my Insta" are hilarious, but there's far more ambition beyond that. Whether it's frustrations with the low wages teenagers are paid, tales of fierce battles on the streets of Holloway or a compelling rant about gender inequality; their perspectives are completely refreshing. Yet listening to the bold, brave rhetoric, it's hard to deny that the students' visit to the V&A to see 'You Say You Want A Revolution?' at the beginning of their journey 12-weeks back didn't have a part to play in it. Being in this very space, witnessing rebellion and engrossing themselves in the political activism of the late-60s clearly was evidently empowering. Nevertheless, their work is penned in a unique language that could've only been scribed by today's youth. And providing an often-ignored bracket of society with the platform to speak out spells just how significant this project is.
From groups surrounding and tackling those on mic to on-stage romances unfolding like Drake and Rihanna on "Too Good", its meticulous theatre is seamless. So much so that, when we're left with a single student behind the decks silhouetted in white noise and Skepta appears, it feels part of a continuing crescendo. The room roars him on, calling lines back word-for-word, but it's when he bounds toward the decks and throws the fist of the junior behind into the air that they truly explode. And as Skepta ducks away leaving the group to throttle us again, everybody realises exactly what this show is; a passing of the baton from one generation to the next.
As the show's gripping finale blows through its final beats, the grime auteur takes to the stage for a last time. Clearly emotional, surrounded by an arm-in-arm cast, Skepta describes how different these 12 young people were just eight weeks ago. "The tears, vibes, insecurities and concerns shown on that first day couldn't be further away." He continues, turning to face the students. "Tonight, it's not me that's said you're an artist; not the crowd; not anybody else, but you've said it yourselves." In a city so often criticised for suffering with a crisis of identity and neglecting community, tonight we've witnessed something that truly champions both. And as the final hurrahs and embraces are shared, it's hard to imagine anything besides the bright future Skepta envisages for this band of young artists.
The Levi's Music Project is a global initiative designed to provide access to music and inspire the next generation of creators. Learn more here or search #SupportMusic'
(Lead image by Sam Joseph, second image by Vicky Grout)