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Features Essays Published 4 December 2017

Why it’s time for musical theatre to embrace grime

“Hard-to-reach audiences are not hard to reach if you speak their language" - Ifeyinwa Frederick argues for a new direction for musical theatre.
Ifeyinwa Frederick
With A Little Bit of Luck at Roundhouse, as part of The Last Word Festival.

With A Little Bit of Luck at Roundhouse, as part of The Last Word Festival.

On his debut album Home Sweet Home, grime pioneer Kano asked, “can the underground go mainstream?” Twelve years later he has his answer. British institution Dame Judi Dench spat bars with Lethal Bizzle, Stormzy took home a GQ Man of The Year Award, Lady Leshur starred in a Vogue video and #Grime4Corbyn was the hashtag of the General Election with JME interviewing Jeremy Corbyn. For anyone who grew up listening to grime on Déjà Vu or has memories of seeing Dizzee Rascal perform at Stratford Rex, the present situation is almost unbelievable. Whether you like it or not, grime is now mainstream. We’ve had books and documentaries about the industry, it’s provided the soundtrack for films and TV shows but there’s still one art form where it hasn’t had a presence and that’s theatre. But it’s time for that to change.

If you are unfamiliar with grime then after reading, I recommend you listen to Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner until you know all the lyrics to Fix Up, Look Sharp. Grime is the music genre that emerged from East London in the early noughties. With a harsher sound than garage, at around 140bpm, the style spread through pirate radio stations and quickly became the soundtrack for many growing up in inner London. Described as “the most significant musical development within the UK for decades”, isn’t it time the stage paid homage to it?

Hamilton opens this month in London after months of anticipation. The show is nothing short of a phenomenon – becoming Broadway’s biggest hit in decades. And it’s easy to see why. Using hip-hop to narrate the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, it is unprecedented in theatre. And though the show has not yet officially opened in London, there are already Hamilton fans across the country, hooked on the show’s score. Hamilton’s success can be attributed to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intentions in infusing hip-hop into the tale. It was never a cheap gimmick. For Miranda, he “really wanted the hip-hop community to embrace Hamilton because it’s such a love letter to them,” and they have – with The Roots’ Questlove producing the Broadway version of the musical. But if we look at recent musical theatre history, the success of Hamilton, comes as no surprise.  With shows such as Motown the Musical and We Will Rock You, the lines between visiting the theatre and going to a concert became somewhat blurred, and earlier this year Sabrina Mahfouz returned to The Roundhouse with her show With A Little Bit of Luck, filled with garage music. These productions prove there’s an appetite for musicals which use non-traditional styles of show music. And with Hamilton going further to push the boundaries, the precedent has been set for theatre to embrace grime.

Now I’m sure there will be some grime fans who’d argue that a grime-based or grime-inspired theatre show would just be another result of gentrification. On the other hand, there’ll be those theatre aficionados that would say hearing the Eskimo grime beat in the Royal Court’s auditorium would be a crime against the art form. The arguments of both would suggest that the two interests are mutually exclusive but grime listeners go to the theatre and theatre-goers listen to grime. At our first meeting, my writing agent and I bonded over Kano’s Home Sweet Home album, an Artistic Associate at one of London’s biggest theatres also told me how sharing his love for grime with students is how he’d been able to connect with them in a theatre workshop, and Bashy who created the iconic grime anthem Black Boys is no stranger to the stage, having studied theatre at the BRIT School. It’s insulting to fans of both the grime scene and theatre to assume that liking art form means they reject the other. Gentrifying grime would not be a direct result of it being explored in theatre but a result of those doing the exploring – the wrong person doing the exploring. Done by someone with a genuine love and respect for grime and its history, mixing grime and the stage could result in truly magical theatre for our times.

And theatre should reflect our times, not exclusively so, but as the world we live in changes so should the stories and styles we see on stage mirror that. Fresh ideas for fresh audiences. Theatres talk endlessly about attracting a different audience but how much variety and innovation is there in what’s programmed to attract a different audience? “Hard-to-reach” audiences are not hard to reach if you speak their language and for many people grime is a language they understand and love. Grime poet Debris Stevenson who has performed across the country, selling out the Roundhouse with her grime-rooted performances agrees. “I am a writer because of Grime, the first writers I knew and saw and could connect with were lyricists. Grime was where I first unearthed the tools for a narrative that felt, smelt and tasted familiar. Similar to poetry and to theatre, grime was derived out of a sense of urgency and it lives in the words, the mouth, the body, the music and the world…My mentor Charlie Dark often reminds me that “Grime inspired an otherwise disenfranchised generation to dedicate their lives to words.” For those groups who feel alienated and excluded from theatre as they do society, the use of grime has the power to reconnect them – to the stage and society. And as theatres grow increasingly aware of the need to diversify the stories represented and the audiences attracted, the allure of grime will only strengthen. “The way grime has debunked the mainstream and built itself is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial, creative revolution the theatre needs,” says Stevenson.   

But most importantly, grime is fit for the stage. For Stevenson, it is why the use of Grime fits so well in her work because “grime is theatre in so many ways.” Theatre like grime is an exploration of our world. Within the grime discography there are coming-of-age tales, summer romances, friendships, fallouts, rivalries – everything you need for a dramatic arc. For example, Dizzee Rascal’s Sittin’ Here tells the story of a young man depressed by his current life situation, frustrated by all that he has seen and that which currently surrounds him, missing the days of his innocent youth:

I’m just sittin’ here, I ain’t sayin’ much, I feel to cry
I’m sittin’ here depressed and I don’t know why
I try to pull myself together, tell myself “Fix Up”
And keep myself from bawlin’ but my eyes, they erupt

Whilst the specifics of the scenes he witnesses – the police harassment, the drugs, the benefit fraud – may not resonate with everyone, that lost feeling that accompanies the transition to adulthood is all-too familiar.  The song brings to mind the confusion and frustration experienced by Arinze Kene’s protagonist in good dog, who like Dizzee watches attentively all that goes on around him, struggling to make sense of the world he lives in. A journey through the grime canon would reveal a host of songs whose stories would translate to stage, not forgetting the story of the grime scene itself – the classic tale of the victory of the underdog. The long-ignored underground scene has now captured the mainstream’s attention.

Grime is one of the greatest products of UK culture in recent years and yet it’s virtually absent from UK theatre, despite having so much to offer the theatre scene. British musicals are struggling against US imports such as Motown, 42nd Street, Book of Mormon and their iconic showtunes; theatres are struggling to attract new audiences; and the stories being told on stage still struggle to give a platform to a range of voices – in short, grime is needed now more than ever. So, let’s pay homage to grime’s greatness, pay homage to the stories of a generation and let’s put grime on the stage.

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Ifeyinwa Frederick

Ifeyinwa is a playwright, and joint winner of Exeunt's black and minority ethnic columnist call-out 2017.

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