by Mike Vinti
Debate has been raging in the US over issues of cultural appropriation in hip-hop and popular music, particularly with regard to the roles of white artists in a traditionally black genre. This debate is a vital one and has highlighted many of the inequalities present between black and white musicians, actors, and other cultural figures. British culture faces its own issues around appropriation and representation, not just of race but of class. The relationship between class and culture in the UK has always been a complex one. From tales of working class hardship by the likes of Charles Dickens and Alan Bennett, to the idolisation of that landed gentry life by the likes of Mumford and Sons and the plague of imitation artists that followed their break into the mainstream, class undercuts British culture as much as it does day to day life.
In the past decade or so however, the evolutions in music and culture driven by the working class have been side-lined in favour of sanitised replicas, stripped of any comment or reflection on the socioeconomic factors that bore them.
This is a worrying phenomenon, and as Labour shadow culture minister Chris Bryant MP recently pointed out, it is one that needs addressing. Look at the Charts any given week and the artists that top it will be ultimately classless. Take for example Mark Ronson, currently dominating the Top 40 with Uptown Funk. Ronson is the son of real estate mogul and music manager Laurence Ronson, brother to ‘property tycoon’ Gerald, and is related by blood to Sir Malcom Rifkin and the founder of Odeon Cinemas. There’s no doubt that Mark Ronson is a talented musician and producer or that Uptown Funk is a ‘massive tune’, but those family credentials should probably start to set alarm bells ringing, especially when you look at other high ranking artists. Mumford, Clean Bandit, even beloved grafter Ed Sheeran, all hail from privileged backgrounds; George Ezra grew up in my home county of Hertfordshire and indie darlings The Vaccines all went to private school.
There is nothing innately wrong with coming from a privileged background, or for that matter any other background, but the reality is British culture, especially British music, is dominated by those whose families could afford to support their ambitions.
This makes sense, being a low-to-mid level popular musician isn’t exactly the highest paying job and there’s not much of a career ladder to climb, even if you do make it into the charts very few artists get paid the amount we like to think they do.
Now, all this isn’t to say that working or lower middle class acts don’t make into the mainstream. They do but there’s far fewer of them and their music does little to inform the listener of the working class experience. For example, look at Adele — MBE, national treasure and infamous for her cackle of a laugh as much as her powerful voice. Adele was born in Tottenham and raised for most of her childhood by a single mother; she’s one of the most visible and successful working class musicians of the past decade yet her music bears little resemblance to her upbringing. Focusing on romance and heartbreak, anything that might signify her class has been removed from her music in favour of less alienating, more universal themes. This isn’t to say that all working class musicians should dwell endlessly on hardships they may have faced but it’d be nice to actually hear some music that wasn’t in denial of its roots.
The closest our generation has to The Clash or Pulp is Jake Bugg, frequently hailed as the Dylan of Nottingham thanks to his vocal styling’s and ability to rip off Bob Dylan.
It seems then that the only way for working class musicians to make it in the UK is to either deny your background or imitate the working class heroes of yesteryear — there’s no room in the charts for tales of leaky council flats or having your family moved across the country in order to find a home.
However, this needn’t be the case. Much as hip hop provides an underground for the experiences of disenfranchised black America, the underground in the UK is far more accepting and encouraging of political and particularly class-conscious music than its mainstream counterpart. Artists like King Krule, Sleaford Mods, and Fat White Family, alongside Labels like High Focus, and the resurgence of Grime, demonstrate the abilities of working class musicians, subverting the narratives of love and partying that dominate the charts to tell stories of the working class experience and reflect the struggles of life in modern Britain.
British culture has a class problem and we all know the solution isn’t going to come from Westminster.
To level the playing field we need to support music that reflects what life is actually like for many people in the UK. The more representative our musical culture is the more voices there will be within it and the more powerful it will become. The lack of diversity in the charts is indicative of a wider loss of control over culture. Without working class musicians we wouldn’t have protest songs or the blues or soul or folk or house; if the charts continue to support a sheltered class of musicians then popular music will stagnate. The voices of the disenfranchised and vulnerable will be lost in the cultural conversation and all that’s left will be James Blunt, denying privilege while inequality cripples the world around him.