A closer look at #Grime4Corbyn and the 2017 ‘youthquake'

How the alliance of grime and Corbynism bridged the gap between formal and informal politics and strengthened youth engagement.

With special thanks to Oliver Brenman for help with research.

British politics sits at a particularly crucial crossroads. Rising inequalities have engendered discontent with the political system as a whole, in a context where few viable alternatives to the status quo seem possible. While Brexit tapped into the reality of the effects neoliberalism has had on the majority of working people, thus far the populist right has captured the attention of disenfranchised communities by campaigning with pervasive and effective narratives. This phenomena is not confined to Britain: the hegemony of neoliberal economic policies throughout the West have sown the seeds for right-wing populist successes, capitalising on the virtual absence of effective opposition. The subjugation of politics by this discoloured ideology, referred to broadly as the ‘Third Way’, is itself the source of despondency, reflected in meagre voter turnouts in both general, local and European elections. Before 2017, any semblance of a populist left capable of electorally advancing collectivist principles seemed non-existent in the context of British politics.

However, Labour’s 2017 general election campaign marked a turning of the populist tide. Witnessing the highest level of youth turnout since 1992, a 16 percent increase on 2015 according to YouGov, the 2017 election galvanised political action in a manner unforeseen by media outlets. The disputed term ‘youthquake’ was subsequently coined to describe Labour’s 64 percent vote share of young voters and to encapsulate the extraordinary sense of political awakening amongst them. Shortly after the vote, Corbyn’s status led him to be invited to the Glastonbury festival to introduce the American hip-hop band Run The Jewels, where he spoke in front of tens of thousands, chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” emanating through the crowd as his speech neared its end. In wider society and particularly amongst the youth, it became fashionable to sing his name and wear merchandise displaying his name and face. Notably, the popularity of t-shirts depicting Corbyn ‘dabbing’ made reference to both his involvement and influence in youth and popular culture.

Jeremy Corbyn dabbing, by Reuben Dangoor

One prominent and symbolic example of this wider phenomenon is the ‘Grime4Corbyn’ movement that emerged in the run up to the vote. Encouraging their fans to utilise their democratic power, an abundance of grime artists, including Stormzy, JME, Logan Sama, Akala, Saskilla and Big Zuu, took to social media to publicly endorse Corbyn. Based in London, the primary aim of this grassroots campaign was to encourage voter registration and foster support for Corbyn. The group organised grime events featuring prominent artists and offered free tickets to attendees who registered to vote. #Grime4Corbyn was tweeted more times than #labourmanifesto on the morning of the manifesto release, undeniably capturing the attention of both young grime fans and the wider media.

The following study, originally titled ‘Grime4Corbyn: fad or phenomena? Exploring the relationship between grime and politics’, interprets the grime community as a form of non-institutionalised politics and its relationship to Corbynism as a vector of wider youth participation in the general election. Conducted at the University of Bath, the investigation seeks to illuminate both the merits and shortcomings of the 2017 ‘youthquake’, and places its conclusions in a broader political context.1

Youth Apathy?

Prior to 2017, youth engagement in UK politics was in decline, with studies identifying young people as the most politically disengaged demographic.2 British youths were, and still are, less likely to vote and join political parties when compared with previous generations.3 This lack of engagement in formal politics may initially suggest an apathetic generation, yet on closer inspection, one can interpret disengagement as an indication that the demands of young people are not being met by the institutional political system. Low participation of young people is due to a fault in the current incarnation of politics in Britain, not a result of political apathy per se.4 To find answers and untangle the intricacies of the outcome of the 2017 election, we need a far more expansive notion of politics and political participation.

Research and interviews undertaken in this study support the notion that youth participation has not declined, but has instead switched to new forms of political expression. Feedback indicated a generation of grime fans who are conscious of issues affecting society, and disengaged from the political establishment, but not inherently apathetic towards politics. For instance, survey responses indicated that grime fans were more than twice as likely as non-fans to support the statement “I have little faith in political elites to represent the interests which matter to me”. Respondents illustrated their points by explaining that “[political elites] have no idea what it is like to be a normal person” (Respondent 320, Survey, 02/03/2018), viewing elites as “mostly old, privileged and out of touch” (Respondent 4, Survey, 05/03/2018). Corey, a grime producer from London, highlighted how he had no trust in the political establishment and “just feels like politics in general is all a bit of a sham, and I’ve just kind of lost any interest in it […] and even when good politicians come onto the scene, I still feel like nothing changes. So, I’ve just kind of given up on it.” (Corey, London, 13/02/2018)

During semi-structured interviews, the context of British politics continually emerged as an explanation of why grime fans held strong reservations towards the political establishment. Peter, a grime fan from London, noted how “grime would not exist without the politics of the UK going the way it had in terms of creating a disengaged working class during the Thatcher years.” (Peter, Bath, 16/02/2018). Ciaran, a grime journalist from The Guardian, similarly referenced the influence of Thatcher on grime:

Eventually people were like ‘you know what, I’m really angry, I’m going to start spitting over the angry beats’, and that was grime. It came out of that anger, and it’s only going to get darker because of austerity, social divisions, racism. It all goes back to Thatcher, this idea that there is no such thing as society. People don’t give a fuck about these kids. They just read about them and keep completely separate from them […] we have to think about music within the context of all of these social and political forces. (Ciaran, Bath, 24/02/2018)

Becka, a founding member of Grime4Corbyn, revealed how the New Labour period further contributed to an ‘apathetic’ generation:

I was at a lecture the other day […] and this guy was saying grime artists are the bastard children of Blair’s Britain. I think that’s really true and I think that in terms of the Labour Party under Tony Blair, they did very little for inner-city Communities. Out of all these statistics that say how many people were impacted, I think the most interesting one is that it the largest amount of young people to vote in the past 20 years. I think that’s an exact timing with 1997, that’s exactly when Tony Blair came into power and told us there is no alternative there is no other form of politics. Since then, you’ve had a total drop off of young people’s engagement in parliamentary politics because there’s nothing on offer. (Becka, London, 06/03/2018).

In a similar light, Corey mentioned how, until Corbyn, working class voters were “stuck with people like Tony Blair killing millions of people” as their only option (Corey, London, 13/02/2018)

Despite feeling disassociated from formal politics, respondents indicated grime fans were engaged with ‘street-level’ politics, demonstrating a passionate engagement with issues that affected them - most prominently housing and the NHS, which appeared in twelve of the nineteen interviews:

They [politicians] only care about themselves and selling off the NHS to their mates. Also loads of MPs, especially Tories, are landlords and the state of rent at the moment is having an incredibly negative effect on everyone I know as well as huge increases in homelessness. MPs only care about themselves (Respondent 431, Survey, 22/03/2018).

These insights demonstrate that grime fans are active in the public sphere, engaging with political and social issues local to them. All respondents expressed individual views on political issues whilst gesturing toward the current context of British politics, which created a disenfranchised working class and subsequent youth apathy. As a predominantly working-class genre, grime became a platform for voicing concern over social issues local to the everyday lives of artist who felt a lack of faith towards political elites. Through critically engaging with social and political issues, grime music can be seen as an expressive form of political participation in its own right. What the interview respondents demonstrate is that members of the grime scene are politically engaged in an informal sense, rather than being apathetic.

Grime as Non-Institutionalised Politics

Conventional opinion dictates that grime is not political in a formal sense, but undeniably contains many socio-political themes. For many early grime artists, formal politics was a distant concept, which they found of little relevance or interest. New Labour’s continuation of Thatcherite economic policies disenchanted the working-class as a result of increasing austerity, decreasing opportunities and a lack of government support. Discontent among working-class youths was soon channelled into grime as artists injected socio-political themes into the lyrical content of their songs. Dizzee Rascal, in his debut album Boy in Da Corner, stated he was “a problem for Anthony Blair”, referring to Blair’s introduction of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders). Repressive policy implementation continued to occur, such as 2005’s Form-696, initiated in response to violent incidents at music events in London. To determine the level risk associated with an event, the ‘makeup’ of the crowd was questioned by police - a policy which received widespread criticism for targeting specific ethnic and cultural communities, particularly grime artists. Form-696 constricted the number of grime events held in London and arguably stifled the scene’s growth.5

These factors have given rise to comparisons between grime and the 1970s punk movement. Both subcultures questioned contemporary political and social issues, promoted a do-it-yourself attitude and challenged the establishment. Through outwardly addressing themes such as urban alienation, police violence, unemployment and racial tensions, grime artists and fans take a firm political stance. Taking ownership of the production of culture allows grime artists to regain a sense of control over their lives.6 Through the legitimate counter-cultural political tool of their music, grime artists are able to escape alienation, facilitating an increased sense of self-worth.7

In recent years, grime has moved from an underground genre into the mainstream. Arguably, the popularisation of grime music can be seen in terms of the broader mainstreaming of black culture, with similar trends identifiable in the US hip-hop scene.8 Street culture sells well to the mass market9 - grime can be strategically advertised, similarly to punk and hip-hop, attracting a wider audience. In this way, grime’s appeal to the middle-class demographic mirrors the later stages of the punk movement.10 Yet, is the mainstream consumption of grime by the white middle-class merely a form of cultural appropriation? Or has it served to increase political awareness of issues such as race and class amongst young demographics? The musical mainstreaming of grime exposes those from outside the scene to the rage of young people. Although something of a double-edged sword, the 2017 report on grime by Ticketmaster revealed the majority of fans viewed the mainstream success of grime positively, with hardcore fans the most likely to agree with this sentiment.

Grime represents a politically wary youth culture, in which many of its stars openly scorn the possibility of a relationship between millennials and the political establishment. Most would assume a coalition between grime and a member of parliament to be highly unlikely. Indeed, politicians have historically avoided supporting the grime scene, fearing that validating grime would mean endorsing the violent behaviour stereotypically attached to the genre.11 Yet, grime and Jeremy Corbyn coalesced during 2017, signifying the ignition of a collaborative relationship between grime and ‘formal’ politics.

“Grime has always been political”

Quantitative findings from the survey reveal that the majority of respondents agreed with the statement that “grime has always been political”. However, qualitative responses to this question suggested understandings of the word ‘political’ were interpreted subjectively: as respondent 19 suggested, “it depends how you define politics” (Respondent 19, Survey, 05/02/2018). Interviews revealed that whilst grime is political in its own way, the politics of grime has traditionally been separate from formal politics. Whilst most respondents suggested the relationship between grime and politics to be “very different to the one you would have applied 7 years, 15 years ago” (Ciaran, London, 24/02/2018), they also highlighted how grime has always contained political undertones revolving around street politics. Therefore, Rasheeda was sceptical of grime “entering this transformative political state” (Rasheeda, London, 13/02/2018). These findings suggest grime fans see the formal politics of the political establishment as separate from the informal politics commonly associated with grime.

Respondents who indicated a change in the relationship between politics and grime explained this by a process of political maturing within the genre. Grime has been around for roughly 20 years, meaning those involved in grime since its inception, such as Uncle Bantzz, are now “starting to act like an adult” (Uncle Bantzz, London, 19/02/2017).

Gaining recognition musically and politically has given the genre a platform to expose issues central to the grime community.12 This has led consumers to digest socio-political themes mentioned in tracks, or through other platforms, such as social media and performances. An example of this was Stormzy’s performance at the 2018 Brit awards. His powerful performance held Theresa May accountable for a lack of funding for support of the Grenfell disaster, demonstrating how grime artists are utilising visibility gained through the mainstreaming of grime to voice their political opinions. Overtly holding elites to account brings debates within grime historically confined to the public sphere visibly into formal politics. Whilst outwardly critiquing political elites in this way is not new to grime, my findings indicate grime fans still do not consider the genre to be engaging with “serious politics” (Uncle Bantzz, London, 19/02/2018).

This forces us to consider how and why grime is excluded from the definition of formal politics, which includes elites, voting and institutionalised politics. Greek philosopher Castoriadis once stated that politics is the explicit activity of questioning the social institution.13 Given this definition, not only is grime ‘politics’, but a particularly effective form of it - as it allows for marginalised groups to develop autonomy through unconventional, non-institutionalised mechanisms. The rising popularity of grime means the genre presents itself as an accessible political tool to an increasingly larger audience. Simultaneously, exposing grime’s deeply political roots should force us to readjust our ideas of what constitutes the political and politics as a whole.

Beyond Grime4Corbyn: what next?

Grime4Corbyn encapsulated an important change in the form of political engagement amongst young voters, offering an effective blueprint for Labour to continue expanding their vote share in future election cycles. It’s useful to extrapolate the findings and analysis of this case study on Grime4Corbyn into all contexts involving disenfranchised voters. Fundamentally, it’s well within both the responsibilities and capabilities of people-led, socially conscious movements in Britain to appeal to those disengaged from politics.

Rather than fitting in with the perceived trend of youth apathy, findings from this study have shown grime fans are actively engaged in informal politics. Through its critical engagement with social and political issues, this research has shown that grime music should be seen as a noteworthy and expressive form of political participation, capable of enriching the public sphere. Reviewing the historical context of grime has uncovered the genre’s socio-political roots, which have not been recognised as having political influence in a formal sense, due to a narrow definition of politics established by elites. However, Grime4Corbyn bridged the gap between informal and formal politics during the 2017 election, demonstrating the potential power that non-institutionalised politics holds within the sphere of formal politics.

Whilst the affiliation between Grime and Corbyn by and large positively influenced youth engagement, interviews also reveal that the transient nature of Grime4Corbyn then led to a certain extent of disengagement amongst young voters, who had supported the movement in hope of change. Corey, who was not involved in Grime4Corbyn, said “it’s very rare for people like that to get involved and the fact that they did, and it didn’t work may be even more demotivating.” He went on to say that “people are going to be scared to try and do that again. Because it’s wasted effort, it’s a little bit embarrassing and it keeps getting proven to not work.” (Corey, London, 13/02/2018). Disenchantment with electoral politics amongst grime fans may have therefore increased, due to the lack of significant change resulting from the 2017 UK general election.

Nevertheless, empirical findings from this study have illustrated that Grime4Corbyn played a significant role in mobilising grime fans to engage with formal politics. That survey results showed that grime fans were more likely to swing towards Labour compared with non-fans suggests that non-institutionalised politics can be an effective tool when addressing the issue of declining youth engagement in electoral politics. It is essential for politicians to make a conscious effort to engage with young voters through other non-institutionalised channels akin to Grime4Corbyn, which could provide a solution to the problem of decreasing youth turnout and the decline of party politics. In order to do so, however, we must expand our frame of reference in relation to what constitutes legitimate political action, integrating many minority groups in the process into channels of political power.

Whilst the possibility of Grime4Crobyn resurfacing remains unlikely, in the meantime grime must not be forgotten by the political elite. That Corbyn publicly thanked grime for its role in setting the agenda in the 2017 general election during his speech at the 2017 MOBO awards was encouraging, but such praise must be accompanied by more tangible recognition, such as conscious efforts to support grime in developing its autonomy. Doing so would further encourage a broader perception of politics and the political sphere, beyond traditional conceptions of political success based on voting alone. Given the decline of traditional party politics, a non-institutionalised politics able to embody the ideologies of those sections of society unaccounted for by the political elite must be given more academic attention. Ignoring this opportunity may risk perpetuating the trend of low political participation amongst young people and overlooking the power of non-institutionalised forms of political engagement.

It is likely that future non-institutionalised political movements like Grime4Corbyn will play a key role in forming an autonomous, democratic public sphere. A positive narrative is important - the alienation produced by neoliberalism has thus far provided pedestals for dangerous voices, projecting themselves under the banner of subversion and resistance to an ineffective system. If politics is to change, we need to be willing to adopt new political vernaculars and adapt to the channels in which they communicate, in an effort to appeal to those who are most disengaged.

  1. Starflinger, S., (2017), Grime4Corbyn: fad or phenomena? Exploring the relationship between grime and politics, (unpublished BA dissertation, University of Bath). In general, there is a lack of academic literature on the relationship between grime and politics. One of the few empirical studies into grime and politics can be found in the 2017 report by Ticketmaster, State of Play. Whilst the report pioneered research into the relationship between grime and politics, it studied the connection in a very narrow sense, through the restricted understanding of political engagement as solely the exercise of voting. Considering this, the success of any further study into the relationship between grime and politics pivoted on the collection of reliable qualitative and quantitative data to expand our understandings of the topic at hand. Quantitative and qualitative data gathered from this study is derived from completed surveys alongside semi-structured interviews, adhering to a mixed methods approach. The survey received 618 responses, and nineteen members involved the grime scene as well as the Grime4Corbyn movement were interviewed. In order to attain a large sample size, an investigator triangulation was used, working with another researcher who was similarly investigating grime and politics. This involved dividing interviews and survey questions into subsequent sub-sections relevant to our individual research questions. The quantitative aspects of the research guaranteed structure, whilst the qualitative aspects complemented findings from the statistical data , providing a more comprehensive understanding of the respondent’s political behaviour. The questionnaire served the purpose of providing a wider sample, allowing for broader trends to be observed, particularly in relation to the voting behaviours of grime fans compared with non-fans. Analysis of Grime4Corbyn was drawn from relevant newspaper articles, given a lack of existing academic work on the movement. In addition to primary data collected and analysed, the aforementioned Ticketmaster report was utilised as a foundation for further investigation. In the report, 2000 participants were asked various relevant questions, including how they voted. Results indicated that 22% of grime fans who voted during the 2017 general election supported the Conservative Party, 8% the Liberal Democrats and 58% the Labour Party. 24% of grime fans who voted Labour said Grime4Corbyn influenced their vote, provoking a more in-depth analysis of Grime4Corbyn and providing the study with grounds for further investigation. 

  2. Dermody, J., Hanmer‐Lloyd, S., and Scullion, R., 2010. Young people and voting behaviour: alienated youth and (or) an interested and critical citizenry? P. Harris, ed. European Journal of Marketing, 44(3/4), p. 422. 

  3. Dalton, R.J. ed., 2002. Parties Without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford University Press.  

  4. Marsh, D., O’Toole, T., and Jones, S., 2007. Young People and Politics in the UK: Apathy or Alienation? New York: AIAA. p. 99. 

  5. Bramwell, R., 2015. UK Hip-Hop, Grime and the City: The Aesthetics and Ethics of London’s Rap Scenes. Routledge. p. 65. 

  6. Bramwell, R., 2015. UK Hip-Hop, Grime and the City. p. 113. 

  7. Blackman, S., 1998. An Ethnographic and Feminist Account of a Resistant Female Youth Culture: The New Wave Girls. In: Skelton. T., & Valentine, G., Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures. London: Psychology Press, p. 207-229. 

  8. Barron, L., 2013. The sound of street corner society: UK grime music as ethnography. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(5), p. 531–547. 

  9. Toop, D., 1991. Rap Attack 2: African Rap to Global Hip Hop. 2nd edition. London: Serpent’s Tail. p. 45. 

  10. Lamy, P. and Levin, J., 1985. Punk and Middle-Class Values: A Content Analysis. Youth & Society, 17(2), p.157–170. 

  11. Collins, H. and Rose, O., 2016. This Is Grime. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 

  12. Bramwell, UK Hip-Hop, Grime and the City, p. 133. 

  13. Castoriadis, C., 1991. Philosophy, politics, autonomy. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 196. 


Will Evans (@willcanfly)

Will Evans is a Cambridge-based writer and educator.

Selina Starflinger

Selina Starflinger is a University of Bath Politics graduate with a keen interest in youth politics, social movements and research methods.