Levi's® Music Project presents Estates of Mind

Battle Scars: The Musical Legacy of 2011's London Riots

“I think musicians, especially those who grew up in the areas affected, were mobilised by the riots to have a voice. I certainly was.”

by Noisey Staff
14 October 2016, 1:32pm

It's been five years and a month since a tornado of riots tore through Britain's streets. Five years and a month since underlying frustrations with wealth inequality, lack of social opportunity and distrust of authorities culminated with a fatal gunshot fired at a civilian, inspiring disenfranchised urban youth to bubble over. And though the apoplexy and looting spanned across districts of Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham and Bristol amongst others, it was the trouble in the capital that captivated attention. Not even London – the city with the largest police force in the country - could withstand the movements of people.

Communities collapsed, people were injured, trust was broken; it polarised the nation we live in, in less than a week. Questions whizzed around the collective consciousness: what did this mean for England? What country would we be waking up in when things died down? But as the sun rose, shattered glass was swept up off the pavements and the high streets stitched back together, and things – as they do – eerily snapped back into a routine. Or at least they seemed to. But people's frustrations can't have been remedied with just five days of rioting. So where did they go? And what is the departing legacy of the riots on individuals that were involved?
"I caught the bus to where the riots were happening, the same one I got to school. It was like nothing I'd ever seen: shapes of people in the fog, hearing the screaming alarms – I'm not gonna lie – is scary as a 15-year-old." Chris, born in Brixton Hill, was part of the riots in South London. However, he describes how the whole thing was born out of that state of nothingness, monotony and lack of opportunity. This is something he feels that – since this period – has inspired people from his local community to get involved with things like music. 

"It sort of empowered us an urban movement. Like, some of my mates are members of 67 (a South London Grime crew regarded as rising stars of the scene) and I know were inspired by it. They took the message: people are stronger together. And that's the same feeling as music, isn't it? I think that it was important to help them to let out frustration. Now the kind of stuff they produce what I'll listen to. It helps me and a lot of people I know work out some frustration, because we can relate to it."

Leanne, born and raised in Hackney, can certainly relate to this. She was on the way home from a workshop when crowds of youths flooded into the streets. These weren't just any groups of youths; they were people she'd grown up alongside. And though she didn't take part in the riots, she witnessed her oldest friends rip apart their own community, something that she understood. "It may sound counterintuitive, but it was a bold move and the world listened." And its impact on Leanne is apparent; she made an album in the wake of the riots on those experiences because she "had to". "I was completely inspired, no, compelled to continue the conversation. It wasn't going to be swept away just to happen again. For me music mends divides, encourages dialogue and is constantly challenging convention. I think musicians, especially those who grew up in the areas affected, were mobilised by the riots to have a voice. I certainly was."

And it seems that the embers of London's fires stoked a flame within its people, subsequently igniting a vibrant musical culture. Is it a coincidence that following the summer of 2011 Stormzy exploded, Ghetts' long-awaited debut record enthralled and the returning Skepta – with the help of his recent Mercury Prize win – was all of a sudden a household name? I don't think so: grime's renaissance is the product of a youth culture frustrated, angry and energised again. And now music had started piecing communities back together, providing the city with artistic character once again. "Grime's given London a musical identity." Skepta articulated recently in an interview with Time Out. "You have to understand, that's all I've ever wanted: for London to have a credible musical voice. I will honestly, honestly die happy knowing that I saw it happen."

The North London born grime star's judgement rings ever true. With people making music at home, releasing it themselves and – like in his case - enjoying success, a DIY movement has taken over the city. Now there are artists developing support systems and friendships, producing and rallying behind one another's material. These factors have provided an attainable route and backdrop for young people that suffered from a lack of direct access to music before the riots. Now whether it's Krept and Konan, Blakie, Elf Kid, Mez, or Jammz, you needn't far further than zones 1-4 to see the brightest lights in UK music.
So accepting how much of a catalyst the riots were in the lives of London's young people, what is the best way to safely maintain a flame in both the music and the scene alike? "I hope that instead of riots, we have controlled gatherings," Skepta added, stressing how it is important to evolve and use these energies productively. "Like my Shoreditch car-park gig (a show Skepta announced on Instagram with two hours to go in April 2015 and 1,000 people showed up), where we can say our message as a movement."
As part of the Levi's Music Project, Levi's and Skepta have partnered to establish a community youth music space in the heart of Skepta's hometown of Tottenham, North London. Track the progress of the project at levi.com or through #SupportMusic'