Lowkey's soundtrack of homegrown fury is keeping solidarity alive

Lowkey's soundtrack of homegrown fury is keeping solidarity alive
Comment: Hip hop has been the soundtrack to uprisings, political campaigns, international solidarity and homegrown fury for more than a generation, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
05 Oct, 2017
Hip hop for the sake of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Lowkey performs in Manchester, 2017 [Facebook]
Last week many activists from decades of anti-war and Palestine movements took a trip down memory lane at a packed out gig in London's Elephant and Castle, where UK MC Lowkey made his musical comeback. 

Palestinian spoken word artist and activist Rafeef Ziadah also shared her powerful poems, and the incredible Narcy joined them from the US.

My days of organising with my university's Students for Justice in Palestine society were also accompanied by a soundtrack; mostly hip hop, all political. But the artists on stage that last week captured the politics and the mood of the period perfectly. 

The People's Army, which was formed of many
artists including Lowkey and Awate (who was also performing), became familiar faces - and voices - in the solidarity, built both locally and nationally back then.

Hip hop for the sake of anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and a challenge to the growing pressures on civil liberties in the context of the so-called "War on Terror", guaranteed huge crowds.

As well as appealing to students, who might have otherwise been politically disengaged, those artists also brought together young people from the local area who wouldn't have otherwise stepped foot in their local university or college campus, and older generations who thought the days of conscious music were over.

Read more: Artivist rapper Lowkey returns to the stage

The energy was undeniable as crowds would leave chanting "Free, free Palestine" and feeling inspired to keep organising and fighting back.

There was something striking about being reminded of those days by the artists on stage, as well as the many activists in the crowd. The themes, songs and questions raised have not only remained relevant, they have today developed an even starker urgency.

Civil liberties undermined, political activists targeted, organised racist and fascist groups on the rise, and the Palestinian people's continued struggle for freedom, remain at the forefront today's struggles. The soundtrack of Lowkey and his companions sounded both familiar and a little nostalgic, but imbued with fresh relevance.

For centuries, the role of music has been to reflect the questions and issues - both personal and societal - faced by those listening. It is often the great works of art, the great songs of an era gone by, rather than the pamphlets and statements, that connect us with those who came before us.

Hip hop is no different, and has been for nearly four decades now, the voice of the voiceless - to quote Lowkey.

From the unifying and organising pull of the Zulu nation, the revolutionary demands of Public Enemy, Dead Prez or the Coup, to the internationalising pull of the movement that got young, often racialised and working class people involved in politics, hip hop has been the soundtrack to uprisings, political campaigns, international solidarity and home grown fury for more than a generation. 

This role remains relevant today. Take for example the response to Grenfell. While mainstream artists clashed with residents over their choice to release a charity song for the survivors, it was local hip hop and grime artists who gave a direct and organic voice to the anger, disgust and sorrow of their community in the face of the countless dead caused by greed, racism and politicians' neglect.

As the room listened, silently, the desire - and the need - for revolt was palpable

In fact, Lowkey ended Thursday's concert with a tribute to the victims of Grenfell - and as the room listened, silently, the desire - and the need - for revolt was palpable.

Even in the last general election, the Tories were confronted with their poor taste in music as well as policies.

Grime4Corbyn was one of the most creative campaigns seen in UK electoral politics for a long time, and changed the way people engaged with the political system. Grime artists including Stormzy and JME came out and showed their support for Corbyn - the anti-politician who actually offered an alternative to austerity, racism and xenophobia.

Art, music and social media were tools like any other on the campaign trail to potentially transform our society as one centred on social justice instead of greed and division. 

The morning of the vote, following a successful concert, the hashtag #Grime4Corbyn was outdoing any other related to the Labour Party. The outcome? More young people than ever in recent history registering and voting.

This isn't just about adopting a tactic that taps into the young people's enjoyment. Artists around the world made their support clear because it was seen as an opportunity to change the very nature of our political institutions, and who they serve.

Word might need to reach the Tories who are considering their own version of Glastonbury festival to attract the under thirties; Ironic given their rampant cuts to art centres and their introduction of the Higher Education Bill that promises to price out working class people from ever following such passions at university.

Lowkey, Awate, Rafeef Ziadah, Narcy and the others reminded many of us of a different era of campaigns and struggle over the last decade or so, but they also pointed towards their ongoing relevance and the need, now more than ever, to continue to organise, to reach out, and to fight back.

In the words of Talib Kwali, "We fightin' the good fight, The Beautiful Struggle". 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.