WORDS BY: Max Cobain
As the BBC Symphony Orchestra closed the Proms festival of classical music at the Royal Albert Hall on the 14th September, it would’ve seemed absurd to suggest that within three weeks the iconic 150-year-old music venue would be filled not with sounds of Mozart or Verdi, but rather a packed crowd chanting ‘Suck Your Mum’ at the top of their voices, over a choral rendition of grime artist Kano’s track ‘SYM’. The Royal Albert Hall has hosted grime before, at the 2015 1Xtra Grime Prom, when an up-and-coming Stormzy joined Krept & Konan, Lethal Bizzle and others in a medley performance, but this was the venue’s first solo gig by a grime artist, and it can easily be argued that Kano is fully deserving of that honour.
Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson claims that the performance was not a matter of him ascending his status as a subcultural icon and crossing into the realm of polite society, but an attempt ‘to bring the Albert Hall into my own world’. Despite the grandiose setting, this does not feel like Kano selling out, but rather in many critics’ words, a ‘homecoming’, with the East-Ham born artist transforming the West-London venue into a representative space for East London’s poorest boroughs. This promotion of Kano’s local area was evident when on the track ‘Class of Deja’, a homage to grime’s early years, he brought out fellow Newham MCs D Double E and Ghetts, neither of whom have been able to quite establish themselves as a mainstream cultural figurehead despite their abundance of talent. Kano, in being able to give them this platform, also drew attention to how far he himself has come as an artist.
Kano’s performance was the last stop of a tour of his most recent album ‘Hoodies All Summer’, which has received widespread critical acclaim. The album features dancefloor-fillers like ‘Pan-Fried’, but also ‘Trouble’, a lament of contemporary youth violence, which is accompanied by a short film which provides a compelling argument for the de-escalation of the postcode rivalries which can lead to tragic deaths, and also illustrates the crucial role which music can play in dealing with the grief such deaths cause. The song opens with a monologue by Darcus Howe, the West-Indian campaigner for civil liberties in the UK, highlighting that Kano’s musical voice has become a distinctly political one, which fifteen years on from his debut single continues to shed light on the social inequality which blights London, and provides, in his own words, a ‘voice to the voiceless’.
The power of the short film for ‘Trouble’ illustrates that Kano’s cultural relevance exceeds merely the world of music, with his role on screen, particularly in this year’s revival of the TV show Top Boy, highlighting his multi-faceted talent. In the series, Robinson plays Sully, a drug dealer who in the first two seasons of the show had little time for conciliation or remorse, but who in 2019’s Netflix-produced third season cultivates a more emotionally developed demeanour. This balanced portrayal crucially humanises those who are involved in the drug economy and the violence which often accompanies it, something which is paralleled in tracks such as ‘Trouble’. As Kano states, ‘I'm just trying to humanise situations and represent voices that aren't being represented’. He acknowledges that ‘great art poses questions and doesn't necessarily give answers and solutions’, but his regular multi-format questioning of how society marginalises certain individuals is a crucial step towards providing solutions.
Kano’s continued relevance then, is not merely the result of producing consistently high-quality content, and diversifying his brand across multiple platforms, but how he has remained authentically connected to the community which he came up in, both socially and musically. Other artists from the same early-2000s breakthrough era of grime, including Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, sometimes struggle to maintain a similar relevance. This proves Kano’s recent success is also not just the result of grime’s current renaissance, which was highlighted by Stormzy’s 2017 Gang Signs and Prayer becoming the first No. 1 grime LP since Dizzee Rascal’s 2004 Boy In Da Corner. To take the example of Dizzee, his last studio album, Raskit, received mixed reviews, and his recent announcement of forthcoming new music received relatively muted fanfare. Even when, on his 2018 EP Don’t Gas Me, he released tracks which harked back to the punchy, down-to-earth lyricism and iconic visuals which defined his early career, such as ‘Quality’, he did not seem to receive the same sort of acclaim Kano has for his most recent release.
Perhaps the reason Dizzee Rascal no longer seems to hold the same place in the nation’s heart as Kano does is that his image has never quite recovered from his stint as a pop artist, which is perhaps best exemplified by his Calvin Harris produced number one hit ‘Holiday’. Through this transition to tracks aimed at Ayia Napa instead of Newham, Dizzee became in many ways the palatable face of UK rap, illustrated by his performance at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. For a kid from Bow, East London, this is a huge achievement, but those from the area might have the right to feel that his newfound lyrical focus on champagne, Ibiza and money meant he had somewhat lost his ability to represent them. And then, as music journalist Kitty Empire writes, ‘while Dizzee Rascal was busy infiltrating the mainstream with chart-friendly fusions, grime came back’. As grime found its feet again, Dizzee returned to the genre, with most of the tracks on Raskit and Don’t Gas Me evocative of grime, and yet what should have been a triumphant homecoming felt hollow. His case was not helped by his continuation of a long-running spat with fellow grime originator Wiley, recently threatening to kill him. Public grime beefs have long been the lifeblood of the genre, but given Dizzee’s time away, this sort of bravado seemed more like an overcompensation for his perceived loss of authenticity.
Dizzee’s dented legitimacy as a grime artist means that were he to attempt Kano’s Royal Albert Hall set-up, creating a semi-religious spectacle of gospel choirs, four-piece band and steel-pan orchestra reminiscent of Kanye West’s ‘Sunday Service’, it would likely have felt over-the-top and self-indulgent. Despite this, Kano’s unique mix of polished star-power acquired from the likes of Top Boy, combined with the authenticity which he has maintained throughout his career, meant that the performance felt more like a justified coronation as the ‘elder statesman’ of grime. As he rapped on his debut 2004 single ‘P’s and Q’s’, he was always destined to achieve success: ‘I’m too deep, how could Kano stay underground?’ And yet, his shift from the ‘underground’ to the stage of one of Britain’s most iconic music venues has not seen him compromise his artistic integrity along the way. As he claims on that same single, ‘I’m an East boy’, and his success this year not distanced himself from this identity, but cemented it.