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‘Redefinition lies at the heart of creativity’ – Young Identity, Unity Radio and Reflections on a Decade of Grime

Libby Turner, a recent English and American Studies graduate from the University of Manchester, reflects on our recent Hip Hop, Spoken Word and the Library event.
(We’ll be posting more about the Hip Hop Collection project next week…) 

‘Hip Hop, Spoken Word and the Library – Transcending Borders? Reflections on a Decade of Grime and Young Identity’, brought together Hip Hop and Grime scholars, poets, radio professionals and talented young people for an evening of discussion and performance.

the image shows three photos in a line, the first is a head shot of a black woman with long braided hair, the second is a piece of graffiti featuring a rapper and the text Hip Hop, the third is a pile of books about hip hop in a library

The event marks the launch of a brand new resource at the Central library Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre – one that focuses on the themes of hip hop, grime, spoken word, education and social justice.

For those who may be less familiar with grime, it’s a genre of music born in the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham, and was originally disseminated via ‘underground economies’ including pirate radio stations. Over the last 10 years or so, its distribution has expanded massively, with grime’s popularity and influence reaching far beyond the east London boroughs where it originated. With names like Skepta, Stormzy and Manchester’s own Bugzy Malone occupying this cultural space, and Jeremy Corbyn’s #Grime4Corbyn campaign during the last general election, it’s unlikely that anyone under the age of 30 remains a total stranger to grime music, consciously or unconsciously.

The evening opened with Dr Joy White’s ‘Reflections on a Decade of Grime’, during which she told us about some of her primary research methods, including visits to Ayia Napa’s Nissi Beach to interview grime fans and artists alike. Dr White discussed the growing prevalence of grime music in modern British culture in London, Manchester, and further afield. She highlighted the difficulties of achieving personal autonomy in a label-driven, predominantly white music industry. Raising the issue of cuts to spending on government funded programmes as a result of austerity measures, she explored how this impacted upon the communities where grime is a growing form of cultural expression.

She questioned the idea that grime has had a ‘resurgence’ in recent years, claiming instead that grime has always been there, just slightly more under the surface than it is now. Dr White’s talk was followed by an engaging set of questions, including one about grime’s influence on politics, and how Corbyn’s campaign had an unprecedented number of young people getting out and voting.

Dr. Joy White was followed by Shirley May, who introduced herself to us as a poet and a founding member of Young Identity, a spoken word collective formed in Manchester in 2006. Young Identity run creative workshops in art venues including Contact Theatre and HOME. They promote self-expression and identity development through spoken word and slam poetry.the image shows a black woman with a shaved head and a long blue dress speaking to a seated audience of people at a libary event


Shirley’s passion, not only for poetry and spoken word, but also for the young people who she works with, was unmistakeable. She spoke anecdotally about young people who join Young Identity as aspiring rappers and grime artists, and reminisced on how she would tell them to ‘slow it right down cos I can’t hear what you’re saying!’ She described the fundamentality of spoken word in music and creative expression so engagingly that it was almost a poem in itself. After explaining about the several different projects that the Young Identity community are involved in –  including Wordsmith, who deliver performance poetry projects to schools in Manchester – Shirley asked us: ‘Do you want to hear some poetry?’

What came next was a series of dynamic and engaging performances, kick-started by a poem from Shirley herself. Following this were individual performances from members of Young Identity, varying significantly in form, content and delivery method. Each performance had its own power, derived through distinctive content, rhythmic expectations, word choice, tone, volume, and speed of speech. Several performances seemed to convey a sense of relief or catharsis for the performer, and it was those which resonated most, as you could really see the effect of the creative process on the individual.

After an impressed round of applause, we heard from the founder of Unity Radio, Jon Green. Unity Radio, the North’s pioneering independent, youth-focused, urban-dance music station, began its life in Moss Side, originally named ‘106’. Since then it has grown rapidly, moved to Media City in Salford and has been broadcasting on FM since 2010 (92.8FM). Following the murder of co-founder, Robert Hargreves, the station reached out to young audiences to provide youth services, with the aim of inspiring young people to walk an alternative path to crime and drugs in Manchester. One example of this is the Hideaway Project in Moss Side.

Jon Green also spoke about the Manchester Hip Hop Archive project, which he is leading in collaboration with Manchester graffiti artist Zack Turner. If they are successful in securing funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project will collect and preserve the story of Manchester’s early hip hop scene; a history that is often overshadowed by the more well-known stories of the Hacienda and Madchester. Excitingly, the resulting archive will be deposited at Manchester Central Library; a fantastic resource for hip hop scholars and students.

In summary – the evening was insightful, inspiring and thought-provoking and I look forward to more events like it.

the image shows mostly young people socialising at a library event. some are holding drinks, others are looking at a table of books

Libby currently works at the University of Manchester and is planning to pursue a Master’s Degree in American Studies next year, focusing her research on racial violence in the US.

Joy White’s ‘Urban music and entrepreneurship: Beats, rhymes and young people’s enterprise’ is available in our library

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

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