All in all, The Long Goodbye’s argument is unmissable and scathing: Ahmed thinks that Great Britain has been a hateful and abusive partner to immigrants and native-born people of color, who now must determine whether to flee or fight back. This might seem to be a surprisingly radical statement from a charming celeb best known for roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and HBO’s The Night Of. But Ahmed’s political consciousness has never been hidden. His rap career began with the satirical 2006 track “Post 9/11 Blues” and includes well-received protest music made in collaboration with Heems, of the band Das Racist. Ahmed’s newest work feels part of a wider turn in U.K. rap toward articulating post-Brexit heartbreak, fear, and fury.
Ahmed’s sound is very much his own, using blocky beats and South Asian influences for jolting, if sometimes didactic, purposes. But in his inflections you hear traces of British hip-hop’s signature innovation: grime, a frenetic, complex style arising in the early 2000s from impoverished populations residing in public housing. Grime is political in much the same way that U.S. hip-hop, rooted in the lived experience of people squeezed by inequality and racism, has often been. “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair,” Dizzee Rascal rapped on his classic 2003 album, Boy in da Corner, referencing the prime minister whose “urban regeneration” agenda ramped up policing and surveillance. In the 2010s, grime splintered off into drill, a style ruled by wobbling, scanning bass sounds. Drill’s attention to the violence of street life has, in turn, drawn heavy scrutiny from law enforcement.
Grime and drill have become big business, generating pop success in the U.K. and among admirers worldwide. Drake has openly raided British rap in recent years. The American rising star Pop Smoke, shot dead at age 20 last month, exemplified the Brooklyn drill boom that was directly inspired by English musicians (who originally drew from Chicago’s drill scene). The irony is that U.K. rap’s global takeover has coincided with Britain’s global retreat via Brexit—which has, itself, coincided with amped-up pressure on the communities that birthed these sounds. The 2016 vote for the U.K. to leave Europe cemented a feeling—the subject of Ahmed’s album—that a multicultural nation’s white residents had reached a toxic level of resentment toward their black and brown neighbors. Rising rates of urban violence in the U.K. have been met by the relaxation of policies meant to counter discriminatory policing. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that claimed 72 victims, many of them immigrants, became another flash point for discussions about injustice, racism, and government neglect.
This confluence of news events and cultural movements has made the U.K.’s recent major musical spectacles into political forums, largely thanks to hip-hop. While the past few Grammy ceremonies in the U.S. have generated controversy mainly about the show itself, the headlines out of the U.K.’s equivalent event, the BRIT Awards, have been about the state of the nation. In 2018, the grime star Stormzy directed a freestyle at then–Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of Grenfell: “You should do some jail time / You should pay some damages / We should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.” Two years later, the rapper Dave—in a year of acclaim for his elegant and richly emotional music—performed his controversial single “Black” with a bonus verse. In it, he called Prime Minister Boris Johnson a “real racist.” He also ticked through various recent offenses to black Britons, including by noting “how the news treats Kate [Middleton] versus how they treated Meghan [Markle].” In both Stormzy’s and Dave’s cases, those callouts were delivered with a potent blend of anger and mourning. In both instances, government officials were moved to reply.
That same mix of moods defines Nothing Great About Britain, the buzzy 2019 album from the 25-year-old rapper Slowthai. The title sums up its confrontational message, which draws a direct line between Brexit politics and deeper, day-to-day inequalities. The songs are dense thickets of sound borrowing from both grime and U.K. rock traditions such as post-punk and new wave. Slowthai uses a raw, throaty yowl as he describes the reality of drugs, violence, and discrimination in his hometown of Northampton. One rollicking single, “Doorman,” moshes its way toward its point about class divides. The opening track sees him blithely calling Queen Elizabeth II by the U.K.’s favorite vulgarity. But there’s sensitivity in the album too, like when he visualizes his own mother on the night of his birth: “Northampton General, 1994 / Mixed race baby born / Christmas well a week before / Mum’s 16, family’s poor / Family’s all she needs / How they gonna show her the door?”
Indeed, what’s remarkable about U.K. hip-hop in this moment is how deftly it connects personal testimony to a story unfolding globally. Amid the best albums released so far this year is J Hus’s Big Conspiracy, in which the 23-year-old son of Gambian immigrants uses a consolingly smooth voice over music that connects Afrobeats, dancehall, R&B, grime, and drill. Brexit gets no mention, but the dangerous reality created by segregation and failed policy does. As a wave of knife crime has commanded U.K. headlines, Hus has been arrested for carrying a blade, has been stabbed himself, and has been criticized as glorifying violence. This new album, his second, does not shy away from issuing threats or darkly contemplating his own survival. But the mayhem unfolds with a sense of grace and exhaustion, and against a larger social backdrop. In the opening track, he asks, “There’s no law; how can I be law abiding?” Another sing-along chorus goes, “How can you sleep at night when you don’t even fight for your rights?” The melody of that line is lullaby-like, but the sentiment is galvanizing: the ever more familiar sound of hurt turning to resolve.