What I want I take/What I don't I break/And I don't want you/With a flick of my knife/I can change your life/There's nothin' you can doAlongside trying desperately to make David Starkey's remarks on last Friday's Newsnight appear innocuous and not racist, his apologists seem to be telling us that he raised a serious issue that must be addressed: there is a criminal sub-culture that originated in the black community, and white kids are now involved in it. Oh noes! We must address this now that white kids are joining in!
What I want I stash/What I don't I smash/And you're on my list/Dead or alive/I got a .45/And I never miss - The music destroying our youth
First of all, just to get this out of the way before we go on, we have no idea what sort of music the people rioting last week listened to. Nobody was going round with a clipboard, taking a survey.
Young people in the UK, black, Asian and white, listen to all sorts of different kinds of music and are parts of all sorts of different overlapping cliques. Hip-Hop is just one of many musical genres kids might dip into, along with things like R&B, that crappy dance music they always play in my bloody gym and so on.
To assume that the white kids rioting last week were a bunch of mini Ali G's, you have to adopt a kind of circular argument, starting with your conclusion.
But let's leave the riots aside for a minute, since this is an important issue and we cannot let political correctness get in the way of us discussing it. Should we be worried about white working class kids being subsumed by black culture and therefore becoming violent?
Probably not, eh?
People have wrung their hands at what it is that makes young people, especially young working class people, oh-so-violent and rebellious for at least as long as humans have been on the planet. In the last couple of decades this has ended up being expressed as a moral panic about anything that's remotely new, music or otherwise, and people decide that's to blame. It could be heavy metal, punk, rock and roll, video nasties, video games, Dungeons and Dragons, the internet and on and on and on. In the 1950s some numpty in the States decided it was comic books.
But it seems that every generation, there's a criminal youth subculture that should make us noisily defecate at the mere sight of a young person, often based around a musical scene. Teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, metallers. Even new romantics, although the fear there wasn't so much that they were criminal and violent, and more that they might be gay.
Oh-so-unhealthy lyrics about violence and materialism and tunes that demean women are not exclusive to black culture, or even particularly new. When I was a teenager, my record collection was filled with swaggering garbage about battering people to death with hammers. In the 70s, Elton bloody John sang about how brilliant it is to have a fight on a Saturday.
Jesus, in the 80s these scary bruisers had a hit about big talk being cheap talk unless you're backing it up and one called 'Dirty, Rotten, Filthy, Stinking Rich':
|Nothing says 'tough' like a blowdried poodle perm.|
But it's not just music. There's a whole subculture of glorifying crime and violence these kids are part of. A whole black subculture. You can tell from the accents and slang of white kids who are becoming black. Just listen to them! This is new, right?
Not really. Adults have been worried about and threatened by young people's slang for at least as long as they've been worried about what makes young people so violent and rebellious.
Anthony Burgess wrote 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962, an expression of fear of feral, violent youths, written in their initially almost indecipherable slang of English portmanteau words mixed with words from Eastern European languages. There's a cracking scene towards the end of the book where Alex, the violent young narrator, is horrified to encounter a younger person speaking in a slang he doesn't quite get. People were nervous about how they couldn't understand young people and why they were so violent and lawless forty years ago.
Before the Windrush even landed on these shores, working class people in London used rhyming slang, which was possibly invented to fool detectives who were listening in on you creating your nefarious criminal plans. For a hundred years, white working class people in London spoke in a way that was influenced by criminality.
Something I can remember from when I was a kid are the letters sent to 'Points of View' by pearl-clutching posh parents, complaining that 'Grange Hill' was influencing their children to speak like working class people. Oh, the horror!
But what's new? Some youths are talking in a way that is influenced by black people. If only our white kids weren't pretending to be black, they'd be as well spoken as they would be well behaved.
That's, like, well rubbish and that innit?
Worrying about violent kids, their scary influences and the way they speak is hardly new or even specifically linked to black culture. But what about glorifying criminals and gangs? That's new, right? That's unique to black culture?
In 2000 and 2007, thousands of people lined the streets of the East End to watch two funeral processions, of gangsters who had come to be idolised. These were the funerals of the infamous black gangsters of the 60s, the Kray twins. Oh wait, they weren't black. Neither were most of the people lining the streets.
Go and look at the 'true crime' section in your local bookshop and check out all the books with titles like "Geezer!", "Hard Man!" and "Smash your face in!" Are these about black guys?
For decades and decades, Hollywood pumped out movie after movie about gangsters, from Jimmy Cagney to Marlon Brando. In fact, I saw 'New Jack City' in a Film Studies class, where we examined how it followed the same patterns and tropes as earlier gangster films despite it being unusual (at the time) because it was about black people.
In 1988 there was a panic about Prince Charles attending the premiere of 'Buster', because it might glorify criminals and influence our kids.
In England, our greatest folk hero is a bloody criminal. As we know him, Robin Hood might well be committing bad acts for the greater good, but that wasn't necessarily evident in the early ballads where he first appeared. There's one where he robs and murders a Friar, and murders his page boy so as not to leave witnesses. Nice. Ballads glorifying child murderers from the 13th century.
'Romeo and Juliet' is heavy on the gang violence theme. That's from the olden days.
None of this is new or different. When it comes to being frightened for, and frightened of youth, adults have always blamed some sort of subculture. We've always blamed music. We've always been scared of how young people speak. We've always wrung our hands about the glorification of crime. We've even always glorified bloody crime and gangs, from Dick Turpin to 'Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels'.
Now, this is not to say that there isn't a problem with gang culture and violence in inner-cities. It's also not to say that the violence isn't more serious than it was a few decades ago, as it certainly seems to be.
Is this a problem within the black community? You can't ignore the stats for gun and knife crime in London - but what you can do is look to see if violent gang culture is peculiar to the black community. As has been raised several times in this debate, violent gangs have existed up in the whiter parts of Glasgow since, like, forever. Nobody asks what it is about white culture that produces those gangs.
If you really want to get to the bottom of why violent gang culture exists, you really need to look at what's the same about gangs in different areas, not what's different. And if you want to know what drives black gang culture specifically, you look at the practical things that influence it - the availability of drugs, the ease of acquiring guns. Things I don't know much about. You don't look at the bloody music and accents.
Violent Hip-Hop lyrics do not spring from a vacuum. Listening to some people in the last few days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything was rosy and lovely and tea and crumpets and then suddenly, boom! Black people suddenly with no outside influences started producing violent and materialistic music that swept our helpless youth along in an amoral frenzy. But, of course, that music and those lyrics are produced as a reaction to something.
And, going back to the riots, perhaps the thing that led to the creation and rise in popularity of some Hip-Hop is the same thing that led people to mindlessly loot instead of target civic buildings. Hip-Hop is not the only place you see encouragement to blindly consume. Hip-Hop is not the only place where what products you buy are seen as status symbols. It is a product of the environment in which those things exist.
And mindless consumption and the measurement of self worth by how many new, shiny products we own that are more expensive than our neighbours' is not something society took from black culture. Even a violent and criminal one.
Now, for those of you who like their gangsta rap, here's a live performance of the lyrics I quoted at the beginning of this post. You might not have heard of it. It's quite new: