The Poetics and Politics of Rap Music in the UK by Dr Justin Williams

The past decade in the UK has been rife with political discourse in all its forms: the spectre of Brexit has dominated over half this time, and now a post-Brexit landscape needs to deal with issues around the Irish Border, the increasing call for Scottish independence, and the role of government in handling the novel coronavirus pandemic. With Harry and Megan leaving their royal duties, even the monarchy is increasingly under scrutiny. Debates around the history of the British Empire and its role in profiting from the slave trade has also been in recent news, with Edward Colston’s statue falling in my hometown of Bristol in June 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement have prompted discussion on identity, discrimination, anti-racism, inclusion, and representation in society for Black British and other minority ethnic groups.


From all this, one can conclude that the Kingdom is far from united. While media outlets such as the BBC and newspapers tell a particular story of the situation, I have found that there is a missing voice in these discourses which shed an important light on these contexts.

The British rapper, or MC, I argue is just an important if not more important voice speaking out and talking back to more mainstream political narratives. Sometimes it’s done with humour, in the case of Brexit parodies like “F**k Brexit” and “Auf Wiedersehen Mate,” or with urgency such as in Akala’s “Maangamizi” (on the African Holocaust). Some of these MCs have received less attention than their stylistic cousins working with grime and drill music, but nevertheless have important things to say on nationalism, history, and belonging.

With regards to Scotland, their 2014 referendum for independence was accompanied by a flowering of creativity, and hip-hop was no exception. Songs from Stanley Odd like “Marriage Counselling” and “Son I Voted Yes” were important in the soundtrack to the “Yes Scotland” campaign (which eventually lost 45% to 55%).

Listening to a song like Dave’s “Question Time” from 2017 at the start of Theresa May’s government really sums up concerns with adequate care and wages for what we now call “key workers” in our society. He raps,

“All my life I know my mum’s been working
In and out of nursing, struggling, hurting
I just find it f**ked that the government is struggling
To care for a person that cares for a person.”

As ever, rap at its most politically conscious becomes a mouthpiece for the voiceless, the marginal, those who contribute most productively in society but are rarely heard. Chuck D famously said that rap was “CNN for Black people,” and many of the rappers in the UK (e.g. Lowkey, Shay D, Akala, Stanley Odd, Reveal) extend this point more globally. Songs about Grenfell Tower (such as “Ghosts of Grenfell”) are concerned with the tragedy itself, as well as the tower as metaphor for the wider failings of the British government and its adherence to neoliberal principles.

And what about songs about coronavirus? Yes, they exist too. Lady Leshurr who has a popular series of viral videos under the “Queen’s Speech” banner, released “Quarantine Speech” in April 2020, encouraging people to wash their hands while draping a sparkly union jack flag mask around her neck.

Investigating UK rap in the twenty-first century shows a multifaceted group of voices that reflect the politics of the postcolonial condition of the UK. Whether it’s addressing national or regional issues, global hip-hop and its penchant for talking back to (or even better, rapping back to) dominant discourses can provide a wider framework for performers.

Listen to the Brithop playlist here on YouTube.

Justin A. Williams is Associate Professor in Music at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the author of Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip- Hop (2013), editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hip- Hop (2015), and coeditor (with Katherine Williams) of The Cambridge Companion to the Singer- Songwriter (2016) and The Singer- Songwriter Handbook (2017). He has also written on crowdfunding, progressive metal, and Hamilton: An American Musical.

[An earlier version of this blog can be found on the OUP blogs website:

Reprinted with permission.]

Race and Antiracism in Science and the Humanities by Dr Josie Gill

The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Josie Gill and Michell Chresfield published in the LA Review of Books in August 2021. For the full conversation please click here.

How, as humanities scholars, can we approach race and science today, at a moment when certain biological ideas about race seem to be reappearing? There are white supremacist groups discussing (and misinterpreting) genetic studies on internet forums. The New York Times reported that white supremacists were “chugging” milk because they thought a genetic study was saying that white people were better able to digest milk than others. Trump has often talked about his belief in “good genes” — both his own and those of his followers — as a way of signalling the purported superiority of whiteness. So there are seemingly casual but also very prominent ideas about genetics entering public discourse.

In relation to COVID-19, recently the home secretary in the UK, Priti Patel, was trying to explain the different impact [of the disease] on Black and Asian communities in the UK. She implied that they are just somehow more susceptible to COVID-19, that there’s some kind of biological difference. Whether these ideas represent a return, or whether they have been there all along, there is no doubt that we are in a political moment where these discourses are gaining traction and there’s a return to a biological understanding of race.

Approaching this situation as a literary scholar can be quite tricky. There has been an attack on scientific expertise [from the right], and so literary scholars can be under some pressure not to do anything that might undermine science. This is particularly the case for the understanding of race that was confirmed by the Human Genome Project; that race is not biological and has no genetic meaning. That is the established and predominant scientific view. In the main, literary approaches tend to adhere to this view, to support it, and many literary scholars are influenced by critical race scholarship in this regard. Scholars like Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Paul Gilroy have in different ways brought genetic science into their work to support their own, pre-existing understanding of race; that it is not a genetic reality. You might ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m not disputing the finding of the HGP or saying that it is wrong, but what I find interesting in their usage of science, is that it marks a departure from how these scholars talk about science in the past.

When these scholars discuss the historical construction of race in the 18th and 19th centuries, they acknowledge that it was an interdisciplinary idea — a construct created from many discourses including science, philosophy, and literature. In these analyses, science is understood as a product of its time, and the colonial context in particular. There’s an understanding that science was influenced by everything that was going on politically and socially at the time. However, when you turn to literary analyses of 21st-century science, you can see there’s a tendency to revert to a different stance toward science, treating it as an objective, neutral authority on race, and not as complicated or imbricated in culture as it was historically.

I was interested to see how I could approach contemporary science by maintaining a focus on the political, social, and cultural contexts which have made certain ideas about race possible in 21st century. I’m drawing on the work of STS scholar Jenny Reardon, in doing this, and trying to expand her analysis and include the literary and cultural, to think about how that context enables certain ideas about race to emerge narratively. I’m not trying to undo the scientific finding that race isn’t genetic; I’m not saying “that’s not true”; I just want to understand the conditions that enabled this idea to gain traction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that idea came about at the same time as the rise of post-racial discourse at the beginning of this century. It seems strange to think of it now, post-BLM, but with Obama, there really was a widespread belief in the US and UK that we were entering a post-racial period and that racism was no longer an issue, that people of colour had gained a certain level of equality and that we were moving beyond race. The science of race was feeding into that political climate.



Dr Josie Gill
University of Bristol