For an awards ceremony that has consistently prided itself on awarding only the blandest artists and presenting the driest, most sober banter, last night's Brits arrived with a certain level of trepidation that very nearly felt like excitement. This was the year when they had widened their voting panel to include people who weren't just old, straight white dudes. To that end, maybe Rag 'n' Bone man wouldn't take home all the awards for that one song he did. Maybe Skepta or Kano would finally get their dues after years of y'know, pioneering an entire genre. Maybe some awards would go to people who are alive. Maybe the BRITs would finally acknowledge black British talent. Maybe this would be the show's best year ever! Maybe it'd be like 2000 all over again!
It certainly looked that way for a hot second. Skepta, Kano and Stormzy were all nominated for awards – which makes sense, considering they are the leading figureheads of grime, our biggest and most important musical export since Britpop. Nao, Lianne La Havas, Craig David and Michael Kiwanuka were also up for awards, which was a welcome progression from last year, in which the entire list of British nominees – entire list, bar the international category – were white, and mainly men, or dead.
But as the awards rolled on, and as David Bowie scooped best album for Blackstar from the grave, followed by Adele for global success award, followed by One Direction for best British video, it soon became clear that the Brits never had any intention of acknowledging grime in any real sense of the word "acknowledgement". Sure, it was sick to see Skepta bounding around the stage, swathed in red light, spitting "Shutdown". And then there was Stormzy, who was brought out to deliver a few bars at the tail-end of Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You". But, like, really? Was that it? Was that grime's big moment at the BRITs? Because if, even now, in 2017, the ceremony is still pretending like grime is a niche, underground genre, instead of the pervasive force that it is, the message booms loud and clear: this is as far as it's ever going to get. You can perform, sure, but you're not quite ready to win any major awards.
Let's not mince words: grime has been the sound of Britain – especially London – for a long time. In the early 2000s, the icy strings, hollow basslines and punchy bars would blast out of Motorola flip phones on the bus. Kids in the playground would know all the bars to JME's "Serious" and Dizzee's "Fix Up Look Sharp" and Wiley"s "Wot Do U Call it?". Grime artists had a huge mainstream moment in the mid 00s, even if it was a watered-down, club-ready version of what we hear now. The point being, these aren't new artists. This isn't a new sound. And it's certainly not an underground genre either – at least not anymore, nearly two decades later, when you have the likes of Kanye and Drake taking influence from grime's raw mechanics, kids as far as Shanghai emulating the British leaders of the scene and both Kano and Skepta's albums leaping into the top 10 last year. When you look at it like that, Skepta shouldn't even be up for "best breakthrough act" – the guy broke through years ago, he should be up for "global success", if it weren't a gong built solely on a numbers game.
It goes without saying that grime – and UK rap by extension – has never needed major award ceremonies to succeed. But as Sian Anderson wrote in the Fader, and as we have hammered home time and time again, "It's not about whether [rap and grime artists] should be longing for a relationship with an institution that's never supported them anyway, it's about whether they deserve recognition from said institution". Yeah, you can say that the Brits are a slickly corporate masturbation ceremony for basics, in which only the Sam Smiths and James Bays and all your nan's faves ever reign supreme, so who cares anyway, right? But also, it's our biggest, most major award ceremony. It is watched and reported on globally. It is literally our version of the Grammys (lol). So, to avidly and stubbornly ignore grime, after all these years, isn't just oversight: it's a statement.
Last night, one of the Brits' after parties took place at the Aqua Shard, right at the tip of the ginormous, phallic, glass building that looks out over the entire city. Hundreds from the music industry turned up, suited and booted, to sip cocktails and eat canapes and dance until the early hours. Booming out the speakers, though, was Stormzy's "Big For Your Boots" and "Shut Up" and Craig David and Big Narstie's "When the Bassline Drops" and Skepta's "Shutdown". Needless to say, to observe a sea of industry people in suits, at the top of the shard, bussing gun fingers to Big Narstie, after handing out awards to The 1975, was quite a sight to behold.
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(Lead image by JMEnternational)