Wiley was included in the 2018 New Year’s Honours, for his services to music. You could say he deserves it considering how he turns up to every gig and gives it 110% each and every time… Well maybe not. Regardless, he has been heralded far and wide as the ‘Godfather of Grime’; a true pioneer of the sound and a figurehead of the scene. Actually, that’s the problem. With its origins on pirate radio stations, grime has from its very outset been associated with a lawless space that exists outside of the formal establishment. It has also historically been attacked by the powers-that be, the first ASBO famously being awarded to the grime legend Slimzee (Now that’s a real accolade befitting of the genre). Other measures have followed such as the ‘racists’ 696 form in 2005- which targeted grime events as they posed too much of a risk of violence.
Grime has always represented a space outside of the conventional sphere in which unrepresented peoples shout their collective dissatisfaction from the proverbial tower block. Wiley describes it simply as “angry kid music”, a soundtrack to the ‘fuck this’ lifestyle, which has spoken to disenfranchised urban youth since its inception. Wiley’s legacy is deeply intertwined with their connection to his music, and to that extent he has a responsibility to his fans that have supported him as the ultimate ‘fuck you’ character.
While Wiley may not be as overtly political or present such an anti-establishment rhetoric as some of his peers, as ‘Godfather’ his legacy goes beyond personal achievement, and to an extent encapsulates the genres legacy as a whole. As a pivotal figurehead of the scene, accepting an award that is so emblematic of the establishment does not credit Wiley’s position as top don, it questions it - Dizzee Rascal, are you listening?
In a recent interview Wiley said: “Punk rock is the root of everything we do: I honestly believe that without punk there’d be no grime”.
We never saw the Sex Pistols recieve MBEs, but more to the point, we never saw them saying “Big up the Queen” (or, at least not sincerely) which was Wiley’s response when he was greeted with the news of his award. The idea of someone who presents himself as a modern-day equivalent of a punk rocker bending the knee to the sovereign seems confused or just ill-informed.
In Skepta’s aptly named 2017 tune Hypocrisy he claims he rejected the Queen’s honour: "Just came back from the Ivors, And look at what we collected. The MBE got rejected,I’m not trying to be accepted.”
Skepta’s response seems far more inline with the ethos that surrounds the scene, by a man that understands the obligations bestowed upon him as a leader of a music scene that finds its strength in being unacceptable. Skepta is not alone in his refusal to be accept the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Benjamin Zephaniah, the British Jamaican poet publicly rejected his ‘honour’ in 2003 as he said it reminded him of the “thousands of years of brutality” that was the British Empire. Amusingly, the list of honours used to be made public in advance, but to avoid embarrassment, it is now only revealed after it has been privately confirmed that the recipient will not be humiliating the palace. Other prominent black figures in the UK music scene such as Akala have also spoken out against the award, saying, like Zephaniah, that it is a nationalist symbol, which by its very name endorses empire and the racial oppression of the colonised. Since grime is specifically a genre that is comprised of artists who are mostly people of colour and with a following that is in the majority BME it seems even more evident that this award should also be rejected. This token of the erstwhile British Empire is not only offensive to people of colour, although they are at the forefront the daily battle against the racism it causes. It is problematic for any music fan who takes issue with the racist symbolism intrinsic to the award and its future association with Wiley’s music. In his autobiography Eskiboy Wiley gives his thoughts on his connections to the diaspora stating that “My home is nowhere […] because me and my people shouldn’t be here, we should be back in Africa. And we’re not. We’re scattered across the earth”.
This shows clear contradictions in Wiley’s public attitudes to race as someone who sees the ills of colonialism so personally, but also wishes to accept gratification such as the MBE from the perpetrators of his people’s afflictions. While it is true that this personal relevance makes this award more problematic, it does not make Wiley, or any BME community member exclusively responsible for fighting against systemic racism and oppression which is exemplified in this award. White and black musicians alike should be using their spotlight to highlight the underlying unsettling nature of this award and the archaic institute which it stands for. Bono’s acceptance of the MBE in 2007 is even more puzzling than Wiley’s, considering the anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid rhetoric of early U2. Ultimately the award is inherently problematic for anyone to accept. Nonetheless, there still resides a need to acknowledge contributions to culture in Britain.
Wiley has always been at the centre of the grime scene, bringing through many successful artists. What’s more, he is a pioneer, creating an iconic sound armed only with a beat-up computer and fruity-loops. He is the definitive king of grime, and deserves props for his contribution to UK music, of that there is no doubt there. However it seems inappropriate for this recognition to come from Buckingham Palace and not from somewhere more befitting of the man and the genre. Perhaps there needs to be an award for the refusal of an MBE, as there is in literature a Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes— the Sartre Prize, after the French philosopher who famously refused the Nobel Prize in 1964. That sounds more up Wiley’s street. Honestly, who knows what that man is really thinking? Perhaps he’ll surprise us at the last minute and withdraw.
It is his unpredictable, contradictory, sporadic character that makes him so unforgettable and has arguably made him so successful. Attempting to predict what Wiley will do next is pointless, and equally so is trying to persuade him to change his current course, as his record label found out in 2010 when Wiley uploaded hundreds of tracks for free as a result of too much ‘creative interference’ from the label. This is just one account out of many that shows that Wiley does what he pleases. He will accept the award if he feels like it. End of story.
While on the other hand it seems that the Royal Family are far more calculating, predictable and malleable. It could be said that their attempts to accept the mandate from the British population as to what constitutes culture and when it should be applauded is commendable. Even more so, the attempt to rebalance the hereditary privilege associated with who receives the award might be a step in the right direction. In actuality, thought, this is just token acknowledgement of ‘alternative’ achievement and minority groups, and ultimately distracts from the wider political discussion we should be having about legacies of empire, entitlement and monarchy.
More than others, Wiley’s acclamation presents a juxtaposition, of a black man from a disadvantaged background and his incredible musical achievements, and the outdated monarchy that is the epitome of the white establishment. It truly shows how desperately attempts are being made to keep this archaic institution in beat with popular culture (140 beats per minute, ma’am). Perhaps this award says more about the Queen than her East London ‘urban’ counterpart? Of course, the recent mainstream acceptance of grime is important, but services to music? Really? Did the Queen give Treddin’ on thin ice a listen and think ‘Yeah that bangs’. Or perhaps it was actually a personal recommendation from Prince Harry- who made much of his fondness for grime during his recent Radio 4 takeover.
Possibly, I’ve got it all wrong, and the Queen is an OG Ruff Squad fan-girl. Who cares: this whole thing feels weird.